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MILFORD – The Caroline County Board of Supervisors drew rare applause Tuesday when it directed the county staff to negotiate a contract with Motorola for a $6.2 million public safety radio system.
Although they had different opinions on how to go about updating the county’s radio system, the six supervisors voted unanimously to direct the staff to work out the details of a contract with Motorola. The system involves the latest computer technology, transmission tower equipment, and hundreds of portable radios.
The county’s aging radio system is used by school bus drivers, school administrators, law enforcement officers, fire and rescue, and public utility workers.
The Federal Communications Commission made a decision over a decade ago to develop more radio frequencies for two-way radios by creating a narrow banding mandate, which went into effect this year. In layman’s terms, narrowbanding means changing from a full width to a half-width channel or from a 25 kHz radio system to a 12.5 kHz efficiency channel.
The county paid $150,000 to an independent consultant who recommended Motorola’s system. County officials also looked at saving money by tying in with Hanover or Spotsylvania and paying to use their equipment.
Dozens of law enforcement, fire and rescue workers clapped hands and cheered after the board voted unanimously to enter into a contract with Motorola. Supervisor Floyd Thomas, chairman of the board, quickly called for order.
“What we would like to do is buy the best technology system we can afford,” Thomas said at the outset of the discussion.
Supervisor Jeff Sili pushed for Caroline to piggyback on the Hanover or Spotsylvania radio systems in recent months because he said it would save money. The $6.2 million price “does not account for all the costs,” he said. “This is not the end of the discussion.”
Other localities that have purchased new radio systems have later accrued additional costs that increased the total by 15 to 30 percent, said Sili.
“In the future, people will see their taxes going up and ask, ‘What are we paying for?’” Sili predicted. “Those folks will be here when budget time comes and their taxes are going up.”
Piggybacking on the radio system of another locality would save millions of dollars initially, said Supervisor Wayne Acors, but it would wind up costing the county more over a 15-year period.
“Motorola offers us a system we can afford,” Acors said. “I’ve supported Motorola from the beginning, and our staff has recommended Motorola.”
Acors noted that he was on the board when the radio mandate first came to the board years ago, but the supervisors delayed action on it. “We’ve kicked this can down the road for years, and this is as far as we can kick it,” he said.
“Every option has been kicked around the table,” Supervisor Reggie Underwood told deputies and fire and rescue personnel. “We have to make sure we give you the equipment and necessary tools to do your job.”
Law enforcement officers, firefighters and rescuers packed the board meeting May 14 and described the problems associated with the county’s 30-year old communications system, such as lapses between dispatchers and deputies and firefighters that have occurred at crucial times in certain parts of the county.
One unnamed firefighter was trapped inside a burning house and had to leap out a window because he lost communications contact via his hand-held two-way radio. In remote parts of the county, cell phones are just as unreliable, Sheriff Tony Lippa has said.
Thomas said Motorola had worked with the county to put together an affordable system by offering “almost new equipment” in some cases and offering $500,000 in additional discounts and waivers. The county also has the option of maintaining some of the equipment.
The county could narrowband its current system for $2 million and comply with the FCC mandate, but “we wouldn’t be able to hear a radio across the street,” said Thomas.
Supervisor Jeff Black said he “wasn’t on-board with Motorola at first.” However, company officials “had an answer for every scenario.”
Only 82 percent of the county has radio system coverage at any given time, and it drops to 42 percent with some of the hand-held radios, especially when leaves are on trees, Lippa has said. Motorola has said its system would provide 95 percent coverage or better.