For Baltimore County police officers out on patrol, backup is just a radio call away. Most of the time.
Like many law enforcement agencies, the county Police Department contends with scattered "dead zones," where many of their radios lose the signal. To combat this problem, the agency has bought more than a half-million dollars' worth of new, stronger radios over the past two years.
Police cruisers used to patrol areas where the signal is weak have been outfitted with the new radios.
County officials declined to specifically identify the areas where radio reception is a problem because of concern that the information could be used by criminals and that officers could be endangered.
"There are spots on Liberty Road where it seems to pop up more frequently," said department spokesman Bill Toohey. "That is unnerving for an officer, to say the least."
During a traffic stop, a police officer might alert a police dispatch official that he is approaching a poor coverage area. A dispatcher could then send another police car to the officer's location.
"Everybody is watching everybody else's backs as much as possible if an officer gets into a dead zone," said Cpl. Michael Hill, also a Baltimore County police spokesman.
The areas most likely to have weak signals are on the edges of coverage zones for the county's eight radio transmission sites, according to county officials. Strong outside radio signals on frequencies close to the public safety frequencies can also cause problems in areas where the police radio signal is weak.
County officials say that when a problem area is found, it's reported to the Federal Communications Commission. If it's determined that a cell phone tower is causing the problem, the FCC will contact the appropriate company. The company will then work with the county to resolve the problem, county officials said.
Courtney McCarron, a spokeswoman for the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials, International said that the problem affects police departments across the country. In recent years, the Anne Arundel County Police Department has contended with the issue.
Anne Arundel County has responded by increasing the number of transmission towers from four to seven, said police spokesman Lt. David D. Waltemeyer Jr. He said that the county is expected to increase the number of towers to 10 by the end of the year.
"We're looking at a 97 percent coverage rate," Waltemeyer said, "We're not there yet, but we're close."
The 156 mobile radios that have been purchased over the past two years by Baltimore County are about 9 inches long, and most are mounted below police car dashboards. Each mobile radio costs about $3,900, Hill said.
Hill said portable police radios, which can be worn on an officer's uniform, have 3 watts of power. The mounted mobile radios have 15 watts to 30 watts, which helps, he said, to minimize problems.
"These things are going to happen from time to time no matter how much we keep up with technology," Hill said.