Indiana, PA - Indiana County

County to take first steps toward new radio system

by RANDY WELLS rwells@indianagazette.net on December 19, 2010 5:47 PM

Every time Tom Stutzman opens the door of the Ford Expedition he drives, he's reminded of the shortcomings of Indiana County's public safety radio system.

Stutzman is the director of the county's Emergency Management Agency, and crammed into the console between the front seats of the Expedition are four radios. He needs all of them because of a lack of interoperability -- the capability of one system to operate with another system -- in the county's emergency radio network. When emergency first responders in Indiana County convene on an incident scene, they can't communicate because their radios operate on different frequencies.

Stutzman must carry around all this radio gear so he can talk to firefighters, ambulance crews, municipal police, Indiana University of Pennsylvania police and other EMA members. Under the current public safety radio system, he cannot talk to all those first responders on just one radio.

The Indiana County commissioners Wednesday are expected to take the first steps and spend the first of what will likely be millions of dollars to improve interoperability and to enhance other aspects of the emergency radio network. Planning, building and paying for the new radio system will be the biggest and most expensive project the commissioners have undertaken since the construction of the new county jail and a longer runway at the Indiana County Airport.

The radio project will have an impact on every resident of the county because it is at the heart of the public safety system. But, Stutzman said, the emergency radio upgrade will likely be more difficult for county residents to grasp. Unlike the familiar bricks and mortar used in building the jail and runway, the new radio system will be assembled from complicated technology and science unfamiliar to many who will help pay for it with their tax dollars.

 

Construction of a new radio system is not something that has popped up suddenly.

For nearly 20 years EMA officials have known about Federal Communications Commission requirements for "narrowbanding" -- a move from the present 25 MHz bandwidth to 12.5 MHz by Jan. 1, 2013. A further narrowing to 6.25 mHz is mandated by 2017.

The FCC plan for narrowbanding is intended to increase the available spectrum in the VHF and UHF land mobile radio bands.

One analogy used to explain narrowbanding compares the process to adding more lanes of travel for vehicles on an expressway. Narrowbanding a radio system is like adding two more traffic lanes in between the existing three lanes without adding any width to the overall highway.  The original highway had three lanes in 30 feet, and the new one will have five lanes in the same 30-foot width.

Licensees using VHF and UHF bands must modify their FCC licenses and convert their radio equipment to operate on channel bandwidths of 12.5 MHz or less. If the equipment can't be converted -- which is the case with about half of the public safety radio hardware in Indiana County and all of the county's equipment at transmission tower sites -- purchases of new equipment will be necessary.

A six-month study completed in 2005 showed that about 1,200 pieces of end-user equipment including radios and pagers might have to be replaced. But some first-responders, like Stutzman, have multiple radios because of the lack of interoperability, so 1,200 new pieces might not be needed.

Since 2005, L. Robert Kimball & Associates has been acting as a consultant to the county in planning for the new system. And in the spring of 2008, the commissioners appointed 30 people to serve on an advisory committee to help evaluate the existing radio system and decide how to improve it.

A six-month study completed in 2005 concluded that the county's emergency radio network lacks the adequate coverage, capacity and inter-agency compatibility needed by first responders. And repair parts for some of the old radio equipment are nearly impossible to find.

Speaking two years ago about the county's need to upgrade its radio system, Stutzman said, "If we stay where we are, we'll become an island."

 

In addition to the FCC mandate on narrowbanding and the need to improve interoperability, another issue has been nudging the county toward an eventual overhaul of its emergency radio network.

As many cell phone users are aware, there are "dead spots" in Indiana County where service is not available. The same is true with the reliability of the county's emergency radio network. Emergency responders can communicate by hand-held radios about 60 percent of the time over 65 percent of the county's land area, according to Stutzman. A goal of the new emergency radio system will be to provide "95-95" coverage -- communications by hand-held radios while outdoors 95 percent of the time over 95 percent of the county's land area. A system that effective will essentially provide 100-100 percent coverage when using more powerful mobile radios installed in many emergency vehicles.

A big part of achieving 95-95 coverage hinges on the addition of more transmission towers to the network. Now in Indiana County, emergency response communications are relayed through six transmission towers. A total of 14 towers may be needed for the new system. Of the eight additional towers needed, four may have to be new construction, and space may be leased on four existing towers.

Also, Stutzman said, low-band channels used by many volunteer fire companies -- though not affected by the mandate on narrowbanding -- are increasingly receiving interference from the steadily growing number of electrical devices in use like computers, copiers and LED signs along roads.

The Indiana County system, built in the mid-1970s and still operating on the original frequencies assigned to it, was not designed for portable radios, Stutzman said. The coverage issue has become more significant because there are so many more first responders walking around with portable radios.

 

The planned new system, Stutzman said, will be "smarter" than the current system that hasn't been upgraded since 1982.

Currently, a human dispatcher is the switch who makes the connections between emergency responders using the system. In the new network, the switch will be a computer. And the computerized switch may be shared with Armstrong and Westmoreland counties, allowing its nearly $3 million price to be split three ways.

EMA leaders have also been looking into the possibility that federal Homeland Security money through Region 13 can be used to help buy the switch.

Another goal of the commissioners and EMA officials in Indiana County is to have a new narrowband radio system operational well before the mandated deadline of Jan. 1, 2013. Leaders want the changeover completed before then to allow time for testing and tweaking.

"We want to implement a new system with training and support," Stutzman said.

The projected cost of building the new public safety radio system is lower now than was first estimated five years ago. The commissioners are now projecting a figure of about $14 million for the new system. Beginning Wednesday and continuing for months to come, the commissioners are expected to approve purchases of equipment, licensing agreements and contracts for the new network. A line of credit with S&T Bank approved by the commissioners in November will be used to help pay for some of those purchases.

The most costly components of the system will be new equipment needed at 14 tower sites ($8 million); microwave interconnectivity equipment to link the towers ($3 million); structure costs at the tower sites ($2.5 million); and new equipment for the 911 dispatch center console and a backup dispatch center ($900,000).

The total cost of new equipment for non-government end-users (police, fire departments and emergency medical service units) is expected to be about $2.4 million. The county may retain grant writers to help raise the cash for the new equipment that some agencies will have to buy. It's also hoped that making bulk purchases will lower costs.

The total cost of needed new equipment for government end-users (EMA, sheriff, district attorney, probation and HAZMAT) may be $800,000.

At Wednesday's meeting, three initial steps could be accomplished. The commissioners might enter into an agreement with Armstrong and Westmoreland counties to share the purchase price of the switch; they might approve the actual purchase of the switch; and they might approve the purchase of fixed equipment at the tower sites. Stutzman said those purchases are likely to be from Motorola since the current system in Westmoreland County is built around Motorola equipment.

 

Since early 2008, the commissioners have been saying that while the county is upgrading its public safety radio network, it might be possible at the same time and with reasonable additional expense to also provide broadband access to more homes and businesses in the county's rural areas.

Internet broadband allows for the transfer of large amounts of data at high speeds.

Indiana and Armstrong counties twice filed a joint application for millions of dollars of federal stimulus money available to areas with limited broadband Internet service. Neither of the applications was funded.

"I'm still disappointed by that," Ruddock said recently, but added he yet hopes to find an alternate way to spread broadband to more parts of the county while the public safety radio system is upgraded.

Ruddock said an alternate bid specification may be requested to include in the radio system the equipment needed to add on broadband service at a later time. Ruddock said it's possible that a private vendor may be willing to extend broadband service "the last mile" into homes and businesses if the necessary infrastructure is already included on the county's emergency radio system towers.

Stutzman estimated that it would cost $1.2 million to $1.4 million more to build the system so that broadband could be added later.

Improving and expanding the emergency capabilities of the public safety radio network is still the No. 1 priority, according to Ruddock.

But, he added, "broadband is a nice add-on" to the upgraded radio system.

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