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Plano complains to FCC after police radio signals disrupt sprinklers

By Theodore Kim
The Dallas Morning News

PLANO, Texas - How about this for a digital age dispute?
The cities of Cedar Hill, DeSoto and Duncanville recently began testing a powerful new police communications system, but the system is so robust that the radio signals are reaching as far as 30 miles away.
In Plano, the signals have wreaked havoc on a network of radio-controlled sprinklers the city uses at parks and road medians, prompting expensive system upgrades and a complaint by the city to the Federal Communications Commission.
Now, what started as a quirky technical matter has taken on a life of its own, stirring tensions between the Collin County suburb and its neighbors south of Dallas. The dispute also shows how crowded the nation's airwaves have become in an era when municipal radio systems and other wireless networks are virtually everywhere.
Plano officials say they should have been notified of the new police system in advance. Tim Smith, managing director of the Southwest Regional Communications Center, the joint agency that runs the 911 emergency system for Cedar Hill, DeSoto and Duncanville, said Plano's complaint is without merit.
"Which comes first: Watering plants or protecting police and fire?" he asked.
The disagreement began in early June, when Plano officials noticed dying trees and lawns in some parks and road medians. They later concluded that the city's $5 million sprinkler system, which is controlled by a specific radio frequency, was not working correctly.
Officials traced the problem to a powerful signal coming from the new radio system serving Cedar Hill, DeSoto and Duncanville.
Radio waves can travel for many miles, especially in the absence of any big obstacles like mountains, Mr. Smith said. The three cities intentionally installed the $1.3 million system on towers located on high ground, providing radio coverage that extends far beyond the immediate area.
The system, to be activated this month, is intended to bolster the reliability of police radios during 911 calls.
"We've gone for a number of years with radio frequency problems," said Kent Cagle, Duncanville's city manager. "It's a very serious issue, and we're finally at a point where we can fix it."
When radio frequencies overlap, the FCC in most cases grants priority to public safety use.
Plano officials say they are aware of those rules, but they contend that the three cities should have warned Plano and others well in advance.
"We understand that public safety has the priority," said Don Wendell, head of Plano's parks and recreation department. "The whole issue is that [the three cities] needed to give us prior notification. But they didn't do that."
The new emergency system also has interfered with radio equipment that Coppell uses to monitor water levels in its three water towers. The signal does not appear to interfere with other cities, Mr. Smith said.
Coppell is fixing its problem by switching to a new frequency and paying about $11,000 to install new radio equipment at its water towers, officials there said.
Upgrading Plano's 15-year-old sprinkler system is not simple. The situation has forced workers to reprogram each of the city's 539 sprinkler controllers by hand. The city also must spend as much as $250,000 at a time when city coffers are strapped.
The system irrigates about 1,200 acres of parkland, as well as certain trees along 130 miles of road throughout the city.
Plano wants Cedar Hill, DeSoto and Duncanville to delay the launch of its new emergency system until January so that Plano can make sprinkler upgrades.
The southern cities have balked, saying their emergency system trumps Plano's irrigation needs.
The two sides tried to hash out a settlement during a meeting last month. They discussed proposals to dial down the emergency system's power or delay the launch until November.
But the meeting grew heated and ended without any resolution, several participants said. Plano later complained to the FCC.
An FCC spokeswoman said the agency does not discuss complaints. Several people involved in the dispute, however, said the FCC was currently considering the case. They say the agency is expected to settle the issue soon.
"Giving Plano until November, that was reasonable," said Joe Gorfida, a Dallas attorney representing the Southwest Regional Communications Center. "Their response was: 'No, we'll take our chances with the FCC.'"

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