Police radio communication inside Riverside-Brookfield High School will soon get an upgrade through a tentative agreement that’s been hammered out between the school board and the villages of Riverside and North Riverside.
The installation of nearly a dozen repeater antennae, a rooftop antenna and other hardware inside the high school will virtually eliminate communication “dead zones” in the basement and areas of the first floor that have worried Riverside officials for years.
Riverside Village President Ben Sells told the Landmark last week that he expects the Riverside Village Board to approve an intergovernmental agreement to partially fund the $67,750 project on March 5, and that the high school board is expected to do so on March 10. North Riverside trustees voted unanimously to accept the agreement on Feb. 17.
The agreement to be ratified in the coming weeks will state that North Riverside will pay $14,000, Riverside will pay $21,750 and RBHS will pay $32,000.
“Thank you to Ben Sells for taking the lead on coordinating the negotiations and getting a fair joint agreement done,” said RBHS District 208 school board president Wes Smithing in an email. “Thank you to the village of North Riverside for their contribution to the project.”
News of the deal comes after village trustees in Brookfield rejected paying $14,000 for the project and blasted high school officials for resisting responsibility for paying the entire amount to solve the communications problem, which Riverside Police Chief Thomas Weitzel first made public in 2016 but said existed prior to that year.
“To know for six years now that you have a safety hazard in your school and not doing anything about budgeting even $10,000 a year, it is absolutely ridiculous,” said Brookfield Trustee Ed Cote, who has a son who is a wrestler at RBHS and spends a lot of time in the basement-level wrestling room. “[The total amount of] $67,000 is nothing once an incident happens. … And to go this long without doing anything about it is unconscionable.”
Sells said Riverside and the high school have agreed to split Brookfield’s share of the cost to get the deal done.
Other Brookfield trustees argued they didn’t want to set a precedent by using village funds to solve safety issues at schools and other buildings. Brookfield is served by two high school districts and four elementary school districts.
Brookfield Trustee Brian Conroy, who has two children attending RBHS, complained that the school district is carrying $8 million in its working cash fund and another $2 million in its life-safety fund, and could easily afford to fund the project, which is to ensure the safety of students, staff and visitors to the school.
“It’s been disturbing to me to know that it’s been on their radar but not addressed,” Conroy said. “They have the money to do this.”
Riverside and Brookfield officials have both insisted the communications problems stem from the way the high school is built. The solid construction means radio signals have trouble penetrating into the basement and some inner hallways on the first floor.
The firm being used to install the radio repeaters, Chicago Communications LLC, has tested police communications at RBHS three times – in 2016, 2017 and 2019 – all showing radio dead spots inside the school.
The latest survey, paid for by Riverside and completed after the West Central Consolidated Communications (WC3) went live, again showed the same problem.
“Until these coverage issues are resolved, this facility would be considered not meeting current radio coverage requirements,” stated Dennis Ondriska, of Chicago Communications, in his survey report, obtained through a Freedom of Information request by the Landmark.
High school officials, meanwhile, continue to believe that a change in police radio frequencies in the recent years, not the school building, parts of which have been standing for a century, is at the root of the problem.
At the school board’s meeting on Feb. 25, Superintendent Kevin Skinkis repeated the implication that the problem was related to that radio frequency change and the creation of the WC3 dispatch center, which went live in May 2018 and handles police and fire emergency calls for Riverside, Brookfield, North Riverside and McCook.
“In 2014-15, the [Riverside] police department shifted from a wide-band radio frequency to a narrow-band radio frequency when they combined it for the WC3,” Skinkis told school board members on Feb. 25. “That shift over to that frequency caused some issues in, primarily, the basement.”
Skinkis wondered about the school board setting its own precedent.
“Just the same concern the [Brookfield village] board had, is if every time they change their frequency, are we going to be on the hook to buy new repeaters?” Skinkis asked.
The frequency change Skinkis referred to, said Weitzel, occurred in 2013 when a federal grant allowed Riverside, North Riverside and a handful of other towns to upgrade their portable police radios and connect them to an 800 MHz trunk system operated by the Cook County Sheriff’s Police.
Those radios, said Weitzel, did not create new problems communicating within the high school. Those problems already existed with the police department’s older 5 MHz portable radios, which not only had trouble penetrating RBHS but couldn’t always communicate directly with the dispatch center. Officers typically had to use in-car radios, which are no longer needed, to reach dispatchers.
“This new system is much better,” Weitzel said. “Communication is not worse because of the current system.”
Weitzel told Brookfield trustees at their meeting on Feb. 24 that RBHS was the only building in Riverside where police experienced such communication problems.
The urgency to install radio repeaters inside RBHS was not driven by the radio issue, which existed previously, but a greater awareness of school safety due to the newer phenomenon of repeated mass shootings at schools nationwide in recent years.
“We can no longer make excuses,” Weitzel said. “I worry about it right now.
“I just wanted to solve the problem. I’m not blaming anyone. I just want to get it done.”