About 20 minutes passed from the time dispatchers were first notified of numerous shots fired on Des Moines’ northwest side on Nov. 2, 2016, and when other first responders around the metro began to learn two police officers had been shot.
Every minute in between mattered.
Not just for 24-year-old officer Justin Martin, whose lifeless body was found shortly after 1 a.m. at the corner of 70th and Aurora in Urbandale. And not just for Sgt. Anthony Beminio, two miles away in Des Moines, who was ambushed soon after by the same shooter.
Everyone who assisted that night risked crossing the path of a cop killer. Communication between assisting agencies was critical.
Des Moines police assured Watchdog that no communication snags delayed first responders on that tragic night. But as much can’t be said about other calls.
Police are shown at the scene where Des Moines Sgt. Anthony Beminio was ambushed on Nov. 2, 2016. Spokesmen for the public safety agencies involved say no communications snags delayed first responders the night Beminio and Urbandale officer Justin Martin were shot and killed. But metro officials acknowledge that communications glitches do happen in situations involving multiple police and fire departments and that even slight delays could put people and property at greater risk.Buy Photo
Police are shown at the scene where Des Moines Sgt. Anthony Beminio was ambushed on Nov. 2, 2016. Spokesmen for the public safety agencies involved say no communications snags delayed first responders the night Beminio and Urbandale officer Justin Martin were shot and killed. But metro officials acknowledge that communications glitches do happen in situations involving multiple police and fire departments and that even slight delays could put people and property at greater risk. (Photo: Brian Powers/The Register)
For years, police and fire departments across the metro have coped with short but frustrating delays in responding to emergencies. So have the metro-area residents they are trying to protect and aid.
The delays occur because of technical glitches between the brains of disparate computer-aided dispatch and radio systems. Some waits can be as long as three minutes; others, a few seconds.
Over the past decade, local authorities have discussed the possibility of sharing one dispatch system, one radio system or both to better serve Des Moines, its suburbs, Polk County, townships and surrounding small communities. Yet those representing 25 different metro communities on a joint 911 services board have been unable to agree to do so.
The idea of joint communications systems arose again this year, triggering sensitive and complicated discussions that culminated this month.
At a meeting last week, police and fire officials on Polk County’s Emergency Management 911 services board agreed unanimously to hire a consultant to examine short- and long-term solutions. But they opted against exploring again any unified communications system.
‘Kicking the can down the road’ a mistake?
One concerned public safety official involved, who contacted Watchdog, alleged that was a mistake. Several agencies, he said, are in the midst of making changes this year, and “kicking the can down the road” for years to come will put first responders, residents and property at greater risk.
The official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the problem, asked Watchdog to investigate whether any delays happened the night that Beminio, the Des Moines sergeant, learned that Martin had been shot repeatedly in neighboring Urbandale. Scott Michael Greene later pleaded guilty and was sentenced to two consecutive life terms for the ambush murders.
Radio communication played a critical role in getting responders to the scene of Martin’s death and minutes later to the scene of Beminio’s death.
“This very situation could easily support why one, single dispatch center is needed for a metro our size,” he wrote.
Des Moines, Urbandale and Polk County officials say there were no delays or communication mishaps the night of the officer shootings. They also said they knew of no resident who has died as a result of disparate 911 systems.
Westcom, which serves Urbandale, received the first dispatch call about shots fired at 1:05 a.m. and 57 seconds, then several others about every minute until 1:10 a.m. when a witness reported seeing a police car at the intersection of 70th St. and Aurora Ave., spokesperson Chad Underwood said.
Less than 2 minutes after the witness saw Martin’s patrol car, at 1:12 a.m., Westcom noted that four Polk County deputies and Des Moines police were being sent to the scene, he said.
Des Moines police Sgt. Paul Parizek said when Martin was shot, Des Moines police also received calls from people who heard the gunfire.
A breakdown supplied by Des Moines police confirms the first gunfire shots called into Des Moines 911 dispatch were reported in the 2600 block of 60th St. at 1:10 a.m. Less than a minute after, dispatch sent officers to assist Urbandale police, then more gunfire was reported at 1:14 a.m.
The witness who found Martin told detectives that as the first officers were pulling up to that scene, he heard the gunfire that is believed to have killed Beminio. Beminio was found in his car at Merle Hay Road and Sheridan at approximately 1:26 a.m.
Detectives ultimately determined that Beminio, who was responding with other officers to reports of shots fired, was shot approximately four minutes after Martin.
“The volley of shots that killed Tony was heard by witnesses at the scene of Justin’s shooting, and elsewhere. Tony was discovered by our officers around 15 minutes later,” Parizek said. “…As far as the murder of these two officers, inter-agency communication did not factor in.”
Supervisor Robert Brownell’s reaction to the public safety officials’ question surrounding the shootings underscored its high sensitivity. Brownell criticized the anonymous official for even asking.
“If there were any hint of radio failure associated with this tragic incident, we, collectively, would have solved it immediately,” he said.
But no public safety official interviewed for this story disputed that the communication glitches could put people and property at greater risk in similar situations involving multiple police or fire departments.
“This is a very sensitive issue for me,” Polk County Sheriff Kevin Schneider said to a packed meeting last week of the board of Polk County Emergency Management. “We try to use the best equipment as we possibly can.”
Majority of taxpayers ante up for two systems
The official who contacted Watchdog noted that 63 percent of taxpayers in the state’s largest county cover the cost of two different and often redundant radio systems used by the Polk County Sheriff’s Department and other metro communities.
Westcom Emergency Communications, which serves police and fire in West Des Moines, Clive, Norwalk, Urbandale and Waukee, uses Motorola radios, as does the city of Des Moines and the Iowa Department of Public Safety.
But the Polk County Sheriff’s Department, which has mutual aid agreements with police and fire in 18 cities and several townships, leases its radios under a contract — soon up for renewal — with RACOM Corp.
Although both historically have provided strong service overall, officials say, agencies differ in their preferences in much the way some car owners prefer different makes and models.
Because the radios and operational “brains” of the dispatch systems are different, communication takes extra steps:
Some of the longest delays — the ones taking up to three minutes — occur when the dispatch of one agency receives an emergency call and needs to relay information to another agency with a different computer-aided dispatch. A dispatcher must call the other center to relay information.
In some cases, first responders in one city may not be able to find out immediately what units from another agency may be closest to them in an emergency.
In other instances, a police officer or firefighter who hits an emergency button may be able to transmit his or her location and data to their home agency, but not to someone nearby who could assist from another agency.
The official who wrote Watchdog also questioned the sheriff’s department’s move this year to extend its RACOM contract, set to end in 2024, without first exploring more unified communications more deeply.
As part of renewing the department’s shared “28E” service contract with the county, all agencies that use the county’s 911 services are being asked to begin helping to pay a portion of the tab.
If agencies sign onto a new contract agreement and agree to having new radios, they don’t have to pay the added amount for dispatch until 2024, he said. But if they don’t, they are being asked to begin paying in 2021.
A vote by Polk County supervisors over whether to extend that contract has not been scheduled, but it is expected soon.
If the existing contract is extended to 2030, the sheriff’s department will continue to have different radio and communications than Des Moines, Westcom and the state for years to come, the official said.
Clash of perspectives over cost
County officials say they and others have tried in years past to get more emergency response agencies to use the same emergency radio and dispatch systems.
The last time was in 2011, following major communication glitches in 2007 at a large and volatile fire at the Barton Solvents chemical plant in Des Moines.
The fire started in a packaging area while a 300-gallon portable steel tank was being filled with a flammable solvent and shot charred 55-gallon drums into the air like missiles.
Supervisor Tom Hockensmith said first responders had to use cell phones because their radios would not talk to one another, as the fire burned uncontrollably over several hours.
Hockensmith said Polk County, with its leased system, and Westcom were in negotiations to try to share radio systems then, but Westcom ultimately decided to buy its Motorola system.
“We felt a leased system was more efficient and less cost,” he said.
Major glitches hampered metro departments battling a large, volatile fire at the Barton Solvents chemical plant, north of Des Moines, in 2007. Polk County Supervisor Tom Hockensmith said first responders had to use cell phones because their radios would not talk to one another.Buy Photo
Major glitches hampered metro departments battling a large, volatile fire at the Barton Solvents chemical plant, north of Des Moines, in 2007. Polk County Supervisor Tom Hockensmith said first responders had to use cell phones because their radios would not talk to one another. (Photo: Register file photo)
Supervisors later agreed to make a major investment in the county’s RACOM system, spending about $12 million, according to Frank Marasco, director of planning and development.
That amount includes roughly $9 million as a capital investment and about $192,000 in access fees each year, he said.
Today, Hockensmith said, he doesn’t hear people complain about communication or coverage problems.
“We’ve made extreme advances in the systems,” he said. “Are they perfect? No. But are they getting better? They absolutely are.”
Hockensmith said the sheriff’s department assures supervisors they have the safest system possible.
“I don’t know if everyone being on the same system is the silver bullet,” he said. “The reason we went with RACOM was because it was a lot less expensive to have a leased system than an owned system. … It was a significant savings into the millions of dollars.”
Fire chief calls delays a ‘huge safety issue’
At a meeting in May with members of Polk County’s Emergency Management members, Joe Clark, chief of the Johnston-Grimes Fire Department, asked members to explore once more converting to a single 911 communications system.
Clark called the delays a “huge safety issue” and said agencies are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on separate systems with annual maintenance costs at different locations.
“Now is the time, as Des Moines is needing to build a new dispatch center,” he said. “And I understand Westcom is looking at moving to a different location. Is this the right time to say, ‘What would it look like if everyone moved?’”
As an example of problems, Clark said, if a Johnston firefighter fell in a basement while on a mutual aid fire in Urbandale or Clive and hit an emergency button, Westcom would not necessarily see that information immediately.
The emergency alert would go back to Polk County.
His concerns were echoed by Windsor Heights Police Chief Chad McCluskey, who called the different radio systems “dysfunctional.”
“I think that while we do get great service from Polk County and from the radio that works in my city,” he said, “it does not work to talk to my neighbors, getting help from my neighbors. And that is dysfunctional.”
McCluskey cited instances where three or four Des Moines officers were in an altercation with a man at 65th and University Avenue this year, and Windsor Heights police had no idea that was happening.
Another time, a Windsor Heights officer was involved in a fight in the middle of the night, and other departments were unaware.
“When I have four communities touching my city, and I cannot hear any of them or hear what is going in their area, it does not work,” he said.
Emergency Management Director A.J. Mumm said at the same meeting that the 911 service board had long been reactive, instead of proactive.
He offered to help the board come together to have the consultant look at shared services.
But Marasco said the sheriff’s department likely wouldn’t participate, given all it has invested with RACOM.
“If a consultant was going to come and tell us to walk away, I think we have a fiduciary responsibility to not walk away from the sizable investment,” he told 911 board members.
Polk County supervisors, he said, already have pledged support in paying for new radios, and RACOM has committed to adding a new tower to help with sparse coverage areas.
Some agencies served by the sheriff’s department need new radios soon.
The consultant to be hired by Polk’s emergency management will instead explore short- and long-term solutions so the disparate systems can work better together. The cost of the research is expected to cost roughly $50,000 to $80,000.