Whenever there’s an incident calling for a police response at Riverside-Brookfield High School, it’s the village of Riverside’s officers who are called to the scene.
And officers have reported over the past couple of years that there are some areas within the school building where their police radios can’t connect with the village’s emergency dispatch center.
Steel beams and heavy concrete walls limit the ability of the radios to reach transmitters.
“Officers have complained about being unable to get to the 911 center with their radios with consistency,” said Police Chief Thomas Weitzel. “There are dead zones since the [school] renovation, and it seems to have gotten worse.
“It’s not the entire school; there are pockets.”
A possible solution to the problem is placing additional radio “repeater” antennas inside the school building to allow radio signals to travel more easily. Earlier this year, a firm called Chicago Communications LLC, which services Riverside emergency dispatch equipment, walked through the school building with police and school officials to survey the issue.
They returned with a proposal to add almost 20 new repeater antennas in the school, a project they estimated to cost a little less than $125,000.
Now high school and village officials are trying to figure out how that project is going to get paid for.
High school officials say they don’t have enough information from police to commit money toward a fix. District 208 school board President Mike Welch said he’s waiting for answers to a number of questions, including whether there are any other alternatives to upgrading the antenna system, how the new consolidated dispatch center expected to launch in 2017 plays into the issue and why police radios from other jurisdictions who are not on Riverside’s radio frequency appear to work in the building.
Welch also complained that the latest figure for the antenna upgrade is more than double the $60,000 initial estimate Chicago Communications provided.
Weitzel said it’s because after the walk through the number of new antennas proposed inside the building doubled and because Riverside also wanted to enhance radio coverage inside the school building for the Riverside Fire Department. Welch said that hasn’t been explained to him, yet.
“We’re not blindly giving money without doing due diligence from our board’s perspective,” Welch said in a phone interview. “We haven’t had a discussion on the new price and why it doubled.”
The school district has also asked the police department whether any other police agencies whose towns are served by the high school have been approached for support and whether there are any grants available.
Weitzel said he’s now pursuing a federal Justice Assistance Grant, which is accepting applications in October. Once he knows the results of that grant application, probably by the end of 2016, he’ll issue a final report and recommendations.
Until then, it’s unclear what the final solution to the problem will be. In the meantime, the school district’s position has rankled Riverside village officials who feel the burden for solving the problem has fallen unfairly on the village.
“I think it’s imperative we have partners in this,” said Riverside Trustee Joseph Ballerine during a discussion of the issue at a village board meeting in August. “I don’t think it’s fair Riverside bears the whole responsibility for this by any stretch of the imagination.”
Welch said that because Riverside police and fire departments are the designated first responders to the high school, it made sense for them to lead the effort.
“They are the first responders,” Welch said. “They’re in the best position to tell us what does or doesn’t work.”
But, Riverside President Ben Sells said it “angered” him that while the problem is caused by the school building, the responsibility has fallen on the village.
“It shouldn’t be our cost at all, and yet we have a situation where we could have our officers or students or teachers in a hostage situation, a shooting situation, a fire situation and we don’t have communication,” Sells said at the Aug. 18 board meeting.
Welch told the Landmark that the school district wants to work with the village and that its participation in the efforts to bring about the new bike path and change the Forest/First Avenue intersection prove that RBHS is a partner.
“I do have fears about safety, but our budget is razor thin and we’ve got to do due diligence before we say we’ll pay for equipment that’s now doubled in price,” Welch said. “I want to get all the information I can for our board.”
Sells, however, indicated he didn’t feel the village had the full support of the school district in this matter.
“I can’t believe we are not getting a stronger sense of support from the school when it’s a construction issue,” Sells said. “It’s not a function of our equipment.
“It would be unconscionable to have one of our officers or resident or student or teacher trapped inside a building because we’re not willing to spend the money to keep them safe,” Sells added. “So, I hope the school district hears that loud and clear.”