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Can you hear me now?

Cell phones add layer to communications systems, officials say

May 12, 2009

Talk is cheap. Paying for it? Not so much.

The advent of cell phones added another bill - or in some cases, two or three - to North Shore communities and the North Shore Fire Department, and an additional cost to taxpayers.

"It's an addition but not a huge one," Whitefish Bay Clerk Barbara Patin said. "They (cell phones) are very useful for those who have them."

Police and fire departments are big users, but, surprisingly, they also play a big role in the various public works departments.

Public safety uses

Police departments have the majority of cell phones.

"They are most useful on (incident) follow-up," Capt. Scott Tyler of the Mequon Police Department said. "Officers can stay on the street to make phone calls. They don't have to come out of their beat area to come back in to use a landline. They also don't have to take up air time with dispatch."

Cell phones are typically assigned to detectives, command staff and squad cars.

Brown Deer Police Chief Steven Rinzel said technology has made departments more efficient. Cell phones simplify calling back officers in an emergency. But other communication devices available to police officers also contribute to that efficiency.

Mobile data terminals in squad cars are essentially minicomputers allowing officers to check vehicle registrations and perform other duties.

"They can also use them to send messages between squad cars rather than do it over the air," Fox Point Chief Tom Czaja said.

Police officers also have two-way radios to communicate directly with dispatch centers and other officers. When in the stations, they use landlines.

The situation is much the same in fire departments. The North Shore Fire Department, the only full-time department in the North Shore, has an array of communication available, including the two-way radios, mobile data terminals in a limited number of vehicles, landlines and cell phones.

"The state mandates that we have cellular phones in all the ambulances as backup communication with the medical director," Deputy Chief Robert Whitaker said.

Accessibility issues

Public works employees also use cell phones and have two-way radios to communicate with dispatch centers.

Why? Think snow. Getting the plows out on the road during off-duty hours and communicating with them while they are on the road is important.

But there are many other uses as well

"We have cameras in ours," Scott Brandmeier, director of public works in Fox Point, said. "We can send a photo of a pothole back so we get the right equipment for patching, for instance."

Contractors working in the various communities can call public works directors directly when questions about a job come up and need an immediate answer.

There are also mundane uses.

"If the guys are out buying street trees and they can't get the right kind of tree or the right size, they can just call and ask about substitutes rather than driving back to the office and asking," Brown Deer Public Works Superintendent Larry Neitzel said.

Most of the village managers and the two city administrators have cell phones, making them accessible at all times, which is a mixed blessing.

"In emergency situations that is good," Brown Deer Village Manager Russell Van Gompel said. "In other situations, it is hard to be free of the job. They are nice to have but they have limitations and can, at times, be a curse."

Costs all over the map

A recent review of both cell and landline telephone bills for North Shore communities for December 2008 showed a range of costs from nothing in River Hills to $903 in Brown Deer for cell phones. Cell costs vary for a number of reasons including the number of phones and the services provided on the phones, ranging from typical phone service to photography, text messaging and Internet capability.

River Hills, which has five cell phones, has a deal that is unmatched in the other communities. The village is not charged for its cell phones as part of the compensation for allowing the installation of a cell tower on village property. The River Hills phones have voicemail, call-forwarding, call-waiting, caller identification, message waiting, text messaging and three-way conference calling. All calls in the U.S. are free when dialed in the 414 area code.

Costs for both landlines and cell phones are all over the map, but communities that buy service through a state plan offered by AT&T, Verizon or U.S. Cellular appear to have the best rates. Because of the timing of contracts, several communities have multiple carriers.

Brown Deer has the second greatest number of cell phones in the Noth Shore: 33. Mequon has the most at 40. Brown Deer goes through AT&T for service; Mequon also uses AT&T for some of its phones, but also uses U.S. Cellular's state plan.

Landlines here to stay

Village and city officials say the positive aspects of the cell phones outweigh the negatives. Most say, in general, the cell phones increase efficiency and add a valuable layer to their communication systems.

It is unlikely that cell phones will ever replace landlines in government buildings, say the various government officials, because landlines have proved to be the most reliable over the years and because of the cost of replacing equipment.

Mary Buckley can be reached at (262) 446-6615.

Municipal cell phone/landline comparison

Cell phone

charges

Dec. 2008

Landline

charges

Dec. 2008

number of

cell phones

Phone with

e-mail/texting

Cell phone

and landline

budget 2009
Bayside  $297  $431  22  2 $39,300
Brown Deer  $903  $4,035  33  3 $46,000**
Fox Point  $93  $1,460  12  none $24,050
Glendale  $245  $779  10  10 $13,700
Mequon  $597  $3,264  40  none $48,500
River Hills  $0  $650  5  5 $20,240
Shorewood  $670  $522  25  18 $33,575
Thiensville  $87  $32***  10  1 $17,950
Whitefish Bay  $399  $1,659  12  12 $53,800
North Shore Fire Department  $644  $2,438  14  8 $36,000
**budget includes Internet service
***$2,549 credit in December because of a change in service providers

Cell phone service providers by community

Plans
BaysideVerizon Wireless state plan, AT&T
Brown DeerAT&T
Fox PointAT&T, U.S. Cellular state plan, One Communications
GlendaleAT&T, U.S. Cellular
MequonAT&T, U.S. Cellular state plan
River HillsAT&T, U.S. Cellular
ShorewoodTDS Metrocom, Nextel, Star2Star, U.S. Cellular state plan
ThiensvilleAT&T state plan, U.S. Cellular state plan
Whitefish BayOne Communications, U.S. Cellular, Verizon Wireless

North Shore

Fire Department
TDS Metrocom, Sprint

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