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SHERIDAN — Sheridan is wired to a statewide emergency talk network. After a phasing process that took several years, the WyoLink radio communication system is the primary dispatch tool for most of Sheridan’s public response agencies.
WyoLink is a statewide digital network consisting of 57 core tower sites that provide uniform communication capabilities to government agencies ranging from police to public works departments. The WyoLink program is an evolution from variable analog two-way radio systems that were previously maintained by individual agencies.
Statewide Interoperable Coordinator Bob Symons said the origin of migrating to a unifying communication method for government agencies started when the Federal Communications Commission issued new regulations requiring public safety and industrial land mobile radio systems to half the kilohertz efficiency of the technology.
Around that time, nearly a decade ago, the state did its own study and considered three possibilities to comply with the new federal regulation. The first was to do nothing and have each agency keep their existing radio systems, which would not have been a sustainable option in the long term. The second was a statewide coverage system utilizing 800 megahertz and 120 tower location sites. The third option, a model that later became WyoLink, was a VHF digital trunking system that required only 57 tower sites for statewide coverage and projected the least expense for the state. A “trunking” system is one that provides for many users in a talk group to share a relatively small number of frequency channels by utilizing whichever channel is vacant.
Sheridan’s WyoLink system, which connects local police, sheriff’s deputies, ambulance services, fire districts and even local government public works departments, is primarily served by four towers. The closest is just outside of town on Kroe Lane. There’s another at Banner Ridge and in eastern Campbell County at a site approximately four miles from Spotted Horse called Chicken Creek. The newest tower at Duncan Lake in western Sheridan County, was added approximately two years ago.
While the average WyoLink tower costs between $750,000 and $800,000, some at more remote locations can be upward of $1 million because of construction and transportation costs. Each tower is a technology hotbed with and emergency generator, microwave backhaul and state-of-the-art functional capacity.
Symons said in addition to better sound quality offered via digital transmission, as opposed to the older analog radios, WyoLink allows emergency responders to hear radio traffic from multiple agencies without reprogramming or changing channels on their own radios. The trunking radio also automatically selects the most advantageous tower to use to send communication signals.
“They don’t need to know what frequency they’re on, they just need to know who they need to talk to,” Symons said, drawing a distinction between the bemoaned old days, when each emergency agency had its own channel that had to be programmed into individual radios and cross-referencing of conversations was a laborous undertaking.
Other “bells and whistles” included in WyoLink capabilities are encryption capabilities, additional channels, automated vehicle location, remote control and panic functions.
One of the biggest selling points for proponents of the WyoLink system is that it provides for interoperability, meaning different agencies can communicate seamlessly during a situation that might require the involvement of multiple entities. An example might be a chase that crosses county lines or a large-scale emergency where help is needed from police, fire and ambulance resources.
The type of transmission emitted by WyoLink can be picked up anywhere within the network of service. For example, a Sheridan police officer could hear local radio traffic even if they are at the other end of the state. While an analog signal would have dropped off after so many miles, the WyoLink digital signal can be relayed between tower sites across the state. While the capability for emergency personnel to listen in on local radio transmission is there, the practice of “dragging traffic” into another jurisdiction is discouraged because it creates significant competition for airspace.
The transition to WyoLink happened in gradual steps, with the highway patrol serving as a pilot agency. While there are still three to four towers scheduled to go up in other areas of the state, the majority of the project is complete and in its operational phase, and has been funded via the state’s general funds, to the tune of $52 million as of May of last year. An additional $19 million came from transportation expenditures and federal grants chipped in another $6 million. The price tag for the new communication technology frontier continues to climb from its existing $80 million mark, as the system requires periodic software updates and other maintenance .
Sheridan County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Mark Conrad said though the WyoLink program claims to cover up to 95 percent of the state, less Yellowstone National Park, law enforcement personnel in Sheridan County still experience dead spots where there is no service. For those times, he said, analog radio transmission is used to fill in.
“There are holes and gaps in the system, no unlike the original system,” Conrad said. “We have just had to learn over time where we need to be to be able to hit a tower.”
Conrad said there are still some agencies straggling to jump on the WyoLink bandwagon, usually because of funding issues. For example, Sheridan’s Search and Rescue volunteers use radios that are hand-downs from other agencies.
Rocky Mountain Ambulance, a private agency, had to absorb the costs of having the newer radios as part of their operating budget. Manager Troy Goodwin said his company’s switch to the WyoLink system was “a lot better” compared to the previous communication system, but indicated RMA frequently still relies on analog radios because some fire districts on the periphery of Sheridan have not yet made the switch.
Aside from equipment upgrades dependent on the capabilities of individual agencies, Symons hails WyoLink as a best-case scenario.
“You’re never going to get 100 percent coverage,” he said, acknowledging that working around service gaps is a learning process for workers who rely on the system.
“I’m not a salesman,” Symons said as a disclaimer. “I belong to a lot of national organizations that talk about interoperable communication, and Wyoming is a leader. That makes me feel good.”
“I think it’s wise for agencies to go to it,” Conrad agreed. “Otherwise, you’ll become an island.”