Ottawa Police union warns new radio system can't penetrate buildings; Mayor says new system shouldn't be 'rocket science'

Some Ottawa police officers say their new multi-million dollar radio system is putting them and the public at risk. They say there are issues with reliability and worse: with an inability to penetrate buildings.

This is a brand new system for police, fire, bylaw and OC Transpo, with a price tag of $55-million dollars. The Ottawa Police Association says it's not working for their members; they want it replaced. Ottawa's Mayor meantime says the new system shouldn't be "rocket science."

The squawk of a police radio; it is a life line for officers responding to a shooting or an emergency. But police are finding that life line sometimes doesn't reach beyond the bricks and mortar of a building.

“Walls for example,” says Matt Skof, the president of the Ottawa Police Association, “cement or normal housing structure could prevent a signal from being transmitted.”

The new city-wide radio system, bought through Bell Canada, CTV'S parent company, just rolled out in the last few months. It enables police to communicate effectively for the first time with other departments like fire and OC Transpo. But the Ottawa Police Joint Health and Safety committee highlights three main concerns with it:

  • Black out areas
  • A lack of capacity to penetrate buildings
  • General unreliability

“The city system if it can't work, what is short term solution?” asks Skof, “Are we looking at doubling up officers or new RFP (request for proposal) process for new product to come in?”

The Ottawa Police Association says it raised these issues repeatedly and when they went from testing to implementing the system, the problems still remained. For a force where reliability is linked to potentially saving lives, resolving this is critical.

Uday Jaswal is the Deputy Police Chief for Ottawa Police, “I am hearing concerns,” he says, “I talk to members every day. I understand the challenges they’re having with radio system. These are real challenges and I don't downplay it and we need to do better and provide them with a system that meets their needs.”

Ottawa isn't only city having problems with a new radio system. Winnipeg Police are also transitioning to a new system; this one from U.S.-based Harris Corporation.

Ottawa's Mayor says he is frustrated and concerned there's a public safety issue here.

“This is not rocket science,” he says, “I've asked our staff for a briefing later this week as to what we can do to give this whole process a kick in the pants and get the system working properly.”

The city’s manager of security and emergency management added that the city is committed to ensuring public safety.

“The City has worked with all user groups (ex. Ottawa Fire Service, By-Law and Regulatory Services, Public Works, Ottawa Public Health, and OC Transpo, among others) during the transition to ensure their unique requirements are being met,” Pierre Poirier said in an email. “To date, the City has transitioned 6,000 users to the new radio system. The Ottawa Police Service is the final user group to transition to the new system, which is operating in compliance with the terms and conditions of the request for proposal.”

Police have formed a working group with Bell Canada and the city to figure out how to fix these issues. The Police Association believes the only fix for them is a new system entirely.