It all started with a red light: The early days of Bay Village police communication

This is the collection of vintage Bay Village Police Department radio equipment Chief Spaetzel had been able to save as artifacts of his department's history. From left to right are: A car trunk mounted two-way radio transmitter-receiver set. A two-way radio base station desktop remote control console with associated microphone in front. A handheld portable two-way radio transceiver, commonly known as a "walkie-talkie." An under-dashboard mountable two-way radio mobile transceiver. 

Part one of a two-part series.

What do a red light attached to the Bay Village Community House and a high tech digital radio communication system have in common? Separated by a number of decades, they were and are both devices used to notify police officers patrolling the streets of Bay Village their assistance is needed somewhere in the city.

Subsequent to well-respected former Bay Village Police Chief Fred Drenkhan’s passing earlier this year, a passage in his April 19, 2015, Plain Dealer obituary stated that, when Chief Drenkhan was a new patrol officer, “the village’s two patrol cars did not have two-way radios. Officers making rounds would periodically check for a signal from the red light atop the Community House.”

Greater detail regarding the above passage can be found in a 2001 publication produced by the Cuyahoga County Police Chiefs Association, marking their 75-year history. Within this publication is a description of former Chief Drenkhan’s earliest days on the Bay Village police force in July 1948. A segment of that description states: “In 1948 Bay Village had no mobile police radio. Communication to the officer on the road was made by the fire watch officer turning on a red light located on the tower of the Community House located in the center of the village.”

It further goes on to describe how the police officer on patrol was to periodically drive by the Community House and determine whether the red light was on or not. If on, the officer was to walk in to the fire station, which at the time was in the basement of the Community House. There the fire watch officer, who received telephone calls for police as well as fire service, would inform the police officer of the nature of the call and where to respond.

Reading that passage in former Chief Drenkhan’s obituary launched me on an attempt to discover, at least roughly, at which point in history the city would eventually equip its police department with two-way radio.

In a sign of the times, the first thing I did in my query was hop on the Internet.

An online search of the Plain Dealer archives revealed, in a mention in the Feb. 7, 1946, issue, the Bay Village Council had just considered plans for purchasing two-way police radio equipment to increase efficiency in officer response to calls. It appears those plans were not put in to action at the time, however.

Also from the Plain Dealer online archives, jumping ahead a number of years, the “Ham Antenna” column by Harry A. Tummonds on Oct. 25, 1959, lists Bay Village as among a number of other western suburbs conducting police radio operations on a VHF high-band frequency. It seems evident, then, that at some point in time between 1948 and 1959 the Bay Village Police Department initiated the use of two-way radio.

A later “Ham Antenna” column, on Aug. 15, 1965, confirmed the Bay Village Police Department as still making use of the same VHF radio frequency, and at this time being joined by the Westlake Police Department, as well.

In a recent meeting with Bay Village Police Chief Mark A. Spaetzel, where he was kind enough to share his knowledge of his department’s radio history with me, the chief unveiled some vintage radio equipment previously used by the Bay Village Police Department he had the foresight to save as historical artifacts. In viewing that radio equipment we were able to determine at least some of it was likely manufactured sometime between 1955 and 1958, giving us some confirmation as to when the Bay Village police Department was initially “on the air.”

Additionally, in a follow-up discussion, retired Bay Village Police Lieutenant Ed Lewis indicated he started with the department in 1967 and recalls the use of a range extending radio repeater installation commencing on their main frequency sometime after his hiring. (The use of that radio repeater had been shared by Westlake and several other Westshore suburbs, as well.)

The Bay Village Police Department has apparently been operating on the same VHF radio frequency, and eventually a couple of others, also, from when they first began using two-way radio all the way to the year 2014, during which they (along with neighboring Westlake) migrated their radio operations to a very new, high tech, digital radio network.

Chief Spaetzel provided me a great deal of insight into the migration to this new MARCS network, which I will share in part two of this series in an upcoming issue of the Observer.

Dan Hirschfeld

I'm a longtime resident of the Bay Village and Westlake area (Bay 1965 to 1977, then Westlake since) who has always enjoyed living here while seeing lots of change over the years.

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Volume 7, Issue 17, Posted 8:50 AM, 09.01.2015