An ambitious regional project to upgrade the Dukes County radio communications network from an analog to a digital system has faced significant hurdles in providing adequate Islandwide emergency response coverage, with police reporting dead spots and missed calls since the system went online in June.

Although public safety officials praised many aspects of the new system, saying in interviews that the transition has led to far clearer and more powerful radio signals when transmissions are received, they confirmed instances of missed emergency service calls and spotty signals in down-Island towns and buildings. The issues have been mainly in Edgartown, parts of Circuit avenue and West Chop.

“We do have a variety of concentrated dead spots,” Edgartown police chief Bruce McNamee told the Gazette in an interview. “The town has long been plagued with dead spots, in a variety of locations. But the communications system in its current form didn’t entirely address those.”

He added: “There are aspects of the system that are light years ahead of where we were a few years ago. But in its present form, it is still not meeting the needs of the Edgartown police.”

The three-phase project to overhaul the Island’s emergency services communication system has been spearheaded by the Dukes County sheriff’s department.

In an interview and detailed press release, Sheriff Bob Ogden acknowledged that there have been problems. But he lauded the digital system’s improvements in clarity over the analog system, emphasizing that it was still early in the transition process. He said many issues existed before the changeover, and he pledged to devote substantial funding as well as continual infrastructure upgrades to improve the problems.

“It’s not an issue with the system we put in place. It’s an issue with the infrastructure that supports the system,” Sheriff Ogden told the Gazette. “There are deficits. We are aware of that. It just comes down to continually building into the system.”

Costing approximately $6.4 million and funded largely with state grant money, the infrastructure upgrades aim to change over the entire county police, fire and emergency services communication network from outmoded analog technology, including dependence on shaky telephone lines, to a digital system.

The system relies on five communications towers, located at the airport communications center, the new, 250-foot tower at the Oak Bluffs landfill, Peaked Hill in Chilmark, the fire tower in West Tisbury and the Verizon tower on Chappaquiddick.

Prior to the changeover, the system used two antennae sites located on top of the Edgartown and Tisbury water towers. But the sheriff’s department has moved away from those sites, instead servicing Edgartown and Tisbury through the more distant Chappaquiddick and Oak Bluffs towers — a decision that has been a bone of contention. While the sheriff’s department has said the Edgartown water commission refused to host the tower, town officials argue the issue is more complicated.

The system replacement, including coverage issues and improvement goals, was discussed at length during a July 29 joint meeting of the technical

and financial advisory boards for the Martha’s Vineyard public safety communications system, according to draft minutes available online. Five of the six Island town administrators and police chiefs attended the meeting, which was held both in person and over Zoom. The sheriff’s department said the meeting was not recorded when the Gazette requested a copy of the Zoom recording.

Begun in 2018, the project has the ultimate goal of using the digital system as a foundation for a broader transition to the state’s interoperable radio system, known as CoMIRS. A successful changeover will make the Island eligible to apply for the state’s radio upgrade grant program.

Over the past three years, the sheriff’s department has also provided 600 new, P-25 radios — and plans to provide 200 more — to public safety departments through grant funding as it significantly upgraded communications infrastructure.

In 2019, the six Island towns agreed to fund the maintenance costs for the upgraded system via a regional, 50-50 assessment formula based partially on call volume. Maintenance costs for the upgraded system were budgeted at $250,000 in FY 2022.

The new system went online June 4. According to Island police, including Chief McNamee, Aquinnah chief Randhi Belain and Tisbury police Lieut. Bill Brigham, as well as Edgartown fire chief Alex Schaeffer, it has provided much clearer dispatches, longer range and better cross-Island coverage, with inter-town communication vastly improved.

Chief McNamee said he recently heard Edgartown and Oak Bluffs police communicating clearly on public safety calls. “That level of connectivity had never occurred before,” the chief said. But without proper infrastructure, according to people familiar with the digital technology, the gains the systems make in clarity can come at the expense of comprehensive coverage. While an analog system will pick up weak or garbled transmissions, the digital system seeks to maintain a higher level of audio quality, leaving officers unable to hear some calls that were previously fuzzy, but audible, with the old system.

Chief McNamee said his summer traffic officers, who used the analog system last year and the digital one this year, have remarked on the difference.

“For them, it was a stark contrast,” Chief McNamee said. “They said, what they heard was much clearer than in years past, but they heard less than they had heard in years past.”

Officers will occasionally resort to cell phones if they encounter regular dead spots, police said. Communications inside buildings are of particular concern.

“It’s a work in progress with the radio system,” said Lieutenant Brigham in Tisbury. “Some things have improved for us, radio wise, especially being able to hear the whole Island better . . . but there’s some tweaking that needs to be done.”

Responding to questions from the Gazette, Chief McNamee confirmed that an Edgartown duty officer missed a July 26 call for service regarding a child drowning at the Field Club in Katama, but since many other officers and first responders did receive the call, in his opinion the missed call in no way affected the emergency response.

The child died at an off-Island hospital two days later.

“We’ve had officers miss calls, or not hear them,” Chief McNamee said. “Because we have a variety of officers in a variety of locations, the calls themselves are not entirely missed, we’re getting it. It’s just there are times when we need to use some other mode of technology to make sure everybody gets it.”

Sheriff Ogden said the issues in Edgartown, Tisbury and Oak Bluffs would be addressed by the installation of “microsites” — essentially signal boosters — at various locations throughout the towns, prioritizing Water street in Edgartown, Circuit avenue and West Chop.

The sheriff also said his department has initiated an independent professional assessment of the current upgrades. He hoped to have issues resolved by next summer.

“There’s not a day that goes by that we’re not trying to make improvements to [the system] or solve issues with it,” Sheriff Ogden said. “No system is perfect. It requires us to continually do the best we can, to provide the best product. That’s what we’re doing.”