Three years ago, Trooper Daniel Worcester was alongside a river in Lebanon, fighting to bring an unruly suspect under control, but he couldn’t summon help because he was in a dead zone where his police radio had no reception.

Now, 20 years after Maine State Police determined their radio system was inadequate, a new $57.4 million digital system has gone live, eliminating dead zones, increasing clarity and allowing multiple incidents to be handled simultaneously. The new system allows any trooper on a portable radio to talk to another trooper in Madawaska, a Marine Patrol officer 20 miles from shore or a game warden deep in the woods.

The upgrade included 40 new towers as well as extensive computer software and hardware. As a money-saving measure, the state was allowed space on 14 new towers installed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection and in exchange gave the federal agency space on state towers. Seven of the sites are solar-powered.

For troopers and other public safety personnel, particularly those who patrol by themselves, the radio is a lifeline, enabling them to summon backup and to pass on important information, such as whether a suspect has a gun.

“We had huge holes in coverage,” said Lt. Col. Raymond Bessette. “If a trooper was heading into a black hole, they would radio in to the barracks, and say if needed, to call on their cell phone.”

Bessette has been shepherding the transition to a new system since he took over communications for the state police in 1998. He’s now deputy chief. He said the new system, installed and maintained by Harris Corp., should handle the needs of several state agencies for the next 30 to 40 years.

To understand how important the new system is, people need to understand the limitations of the old one, installed in 1974, Bessette said. Not only were their dead spots, but during a major incident, when dispatchers would announce a signal 1000 to keep all non-essential radio traffic off the air, there was no way to dispatch troopers in other parts of the affected county to other incidents.

Barracks in different counties often shared the same frequency and troopers would have to wait their turn to broadcast. Aroostook County is so big, a supervisor could only communicate by radio with half the troopers on the road, Bessette said.

In southern Maine, transmissions were interrupted by signals out of New Hampshire, where a new system had been installed.

“At the time that was happening, the system was also breaking. We couldn’t even buy parts from the manufacturer. We were buying parts from third world countries,” Bessette said. “It’s only by good luck and good fortune we managed to survive the way we did.”

When the new system went live, initially in Aroostook County in January, it marked the first time a supervisor could communicate with all the troopers under them, Bessette said. Last month, the system went live for other areas of the state.

Now, when dispatchers have a major incident, they can switch everyone dealing with it to a single channel, while other business can be broadcast on the main frequency.

“The difference is everywhere,” said Lt. Louis Nyitray, commander of Troop A in York County.

The system also allows non-state agencies with analog frequencies to be linked to state frequencies when more than one agency is responding to an incident. Maine is one of only two states that can do that, Bessette said.

The system is being monitored from a command center in Florida, which can tell when a tower’s backup generator comes on or when system problems occur..

The new system serves the Department of Public Safety, Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, the Maine Emergency Management Agency, forest rangers, corrections personnel and others – roughly 2,000 users in all.