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New emergency radio system will be in use by November 2014

Posted on Thursday, December 26, 2013 at 3:12 pm

Caroline County will have a modern emergency radio system by late November 2014 to replace a 30-year-old system that reaches only 42 percent of the county at certain times, a county official said.

The Caroline County Board of Supervisors directed the county staff to negotiate a contract with Motorola Solutions Inc. for a $6.2 million public safety radio system in May 2013. The system will involve 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 (FCC) 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, narrow banding 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 FCC extended Caroline’s deadline for compliance to Nov. 30, 2014, and “everything is on track to meet that deadline,” said Alan Partin, Caroline’s assistant county administrator.

The new system will involve attaching a microwave dish antenna and other types of antennas to towers. Caroline representatives are securing agreements with owners of cell phone towers to place equipment on two towers owned by Hanover County and four privately owned towers, Partin said.

An engineering study has been completed and it shows all the equipment that is necessary for Caroline’s new system, Partin said. “We’re finalizing the equipment list so that we will actually be ready to place the order,” he noted. “Once it’s finalized and ordered, the system will be assembled and tested and demonstrated.” The equipment is in a Motorola factory in Illinois.

“Motorola is working with us and meeting with us on a regular basis,” Partin said.

In a June 20, 2013 letter, County Administrator Charles Culley asked the FCC to extend the June 30, 2013 deadline to Nov. 30, 2014. In that letter, he said the county had executed a contract with Motorola on June 12; secured funding for the project through the Bank of America on June 11 and had established a completion date of Nov. 19, 2014.

A schedule given to the FCC calls for console and dispatch center installation in February 2014; microwave system installation in March 2014; completion of testing in June 2014; subscriber installation and programming in August 2014; cutover to the new system in August 2014; completion of a 30-day operational test in September 2014; and final system acceptance on Nov. 19, 2014.

Culley noted to the FCC that Caroline will be in compliance in 2014 with the FCC’s 2017 deadline for another mandate for narrow banding.

Law enforcement officers, firefighters and rescuers packed the Board of Supervisors meeting on May 14 and described the problems associated with the county’s 30-year-old communications system. They described 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.

Only 82 percent of the county has radio system coverage at any given time with the current system, 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.

Localities that do not comply with the FCC mandate face monetary penalties as well as having their radio communications systems closed down. The FCC extended Caroline’s deadline until May 15 to give the FCC a specific written plan of action on replacing the radio system and then to November 2014 to have the new system operational.

The county received a bid from Motorola early in 2012 for a new radio system. After that, a committee representing the agencies that use the communications system and the county’s administrative staff spent months examining ways to comply with the mandate.