County phases in radio system
Indiana County’s new public safety radio network equipment is now in use by several county departments and is getting good initial reviews.
Installation of remaining equipment and training for other emergency first responders will continue through the early summer, according to Tom Stutzman, the county’s Emergency Management Agency director.
In addition to improving interoperability — the capability of one radio system to allow communications with another system — the $17 million upgrade will satisfy a Federal Communications Commission requirement for “narrowbanding,” intended to increase the available spectrum in the VHF and UHF land mobile radio bands.
Monday was the deadline for Indiana County’s new system to be operational under an extension granted by the FCC. Stutzman said an additional extension was requested to complete the transition to the enhanced system, but EMA has received no response from the FCC.
“We have not gotten any new information from the FCC. … The answer we get is, ‘We’re backlogged,’” Stutzman said, so the county’s EMA is operating under the assumption that no news is good news.
Eventually the new system and its upgraded components will be used by police, firefighters, ambulance paramedics, EMA first responders and others. Indiana County departments, including the sheriff’s office, probation department, airport staff and Department of Parks & Trails, have made the transition to the new radio equipment.
“That is step one,” Stutzman said. Coming next, he continued, is getting other law enforcement agencies connected to the new system, followed by emergency medical services and then volunteer fire departments through the summer.
One of the goals of the new system is to provide “95-95” capability — meaning emergency responders using the equipment will be able to communicate outdoors over hand-held radios 95 percent of the time across 95 percent of the county’s landmass. Stutzman said when many of the county staffers recently received their new radio equipment they went to locations in the county where they previously did not have radio reception to see if the new equipment would allow them to communicate from there.
“I’m happy to report, yes it does,” Stutzman said.
Employees of several county departments who did not have access to the public safety radio system before now can communicate over the new equipment.
“Even the (county) commissioners are carrying radios,” Stutzman said.
Contract approvals are needed at the next commissioners’ meeting to complete the new radio equipment installations for some municipal police departments. The Blairsville, Homer City, Clymer, Cherry Tree and Saltsburg police departments will use the new system, and space is available on the network for the Indiana Borough Police Department to join the system in the future if it chooses to do so, Stutzman said.
The law enforcement installations will involve seven mobile (vehicle) radios and 20 portable radios. Emergency medical services will use 20 mobile radios and about 150 portables. And the volunteer fire departments in the county will have about 80 mobile radios and between 300 and 400 portable radios.
According to Stutzman, there are 643 pagers in use by firefighters in the county.
“That’s a lot of people we have to train” on the new system, Stutzman said.
County employees were used as the test group for creating a training program. The training, Stutzman said, can be completed in about two hours and part of that time is used explaining the capabilities of the new system, including multiple talk groups and individual paging.
“There are all kinds of features to allow users to control their communications individually,” Stutzman said.
Some time will also be needed to convert fire sirens around the county to the new network. Some of those sirens, Stutzman said, are connected with “really old technology” from the past 20 years or longer.
Early in the planning stages the commissioners decided to build additional capacity for growth into the public safety radio network and install fiber-optic cable as part of the system. Broadening the scope of the system will allow more county agencies to use the network and some services the county now pays for, such as telephone and Internet access, can be delivered over the county’s fiber-optic network and save the county money and may become a revenue-generator.