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Communication is improving, but dead zones will always exist

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When Montrose County Sheriff's Deputy Bruce Schmalz was in the west end of Montrose County, he found himself alone and in a remote, narrow canyon. No one knew where he was and he had no means of contacting anyone for assistance or backup.

Delta County deputies are also frequently out of radio and cell phone range. "There's a pretty large portion in the Crawford area of the county where we struggle with communication issues," Delta County Sheriff Fred McKee said. During summer patrol of Grand Mesa, deputies can also be out of radio and cell phone range. There are pockets near Paonia, and stretches along Escalante Canyon where deputies lose contact with dispatch.

Still, the situation is better than it was prior to the implementation of the current 800 trunk radio system, the sheriff said. And the outlook is improving, with an application for a Homeland Security grant that will fund purchase and installation of a repeater in Crawford itself. "That purchase will not only help us, but all emergency responders, including fire and ambulance," Sheriff McKee said.

The department also has four satellite phones which can be distributed in the event of a major incident.

"Communication is always improving, but there's always going to be some spots, some little canyon or somewhere, where getting word out is going to be a problem," McKee said.

And the risk of running into an individual who harbors a grudge against law enforcement is always present.

"Every week our patrol deputies are pulling up behind somebody. They're not necessarily stopping somebody for a traffic citation or a criminal investigation; the only reason to be in contact is to see if the driver is okay, to check on their welfare. Our job is to 'protect and serve,' and part of serving is checking with somebody stopped along the side of the road to see if we can be of help."

The sheriff recalls an incident along I-70, where a Colorado State Patrol trooper stopped to assist a motorist, who opened fire without any provocation.

"It's always a possibility," the sheriff said.

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