EMA to begin drive testing of new county radio system
July 21, 2013 2:30 AM
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Beginning Monday, technicians from Motorola and representatives from the Indiana County Emergency Management Agency will begin driving around on nearly every road in Indiana County, and — as in the old Verizon television ads — they’ll radio the 911 emergency dispatch center and ask, “Can you hear me now?”

The drive testing is another step in the $16 million upgrade of the county’s public safety radio system used by police, firefighters, paramedics and EMA first responders.

On the wall of his office in the EMA center along Haven Drive, White Township, Tom Stutzman, EMA director, has a large map of the county divided into small squares. The map was created by a computer projection, and about 95 percent of the map is shaded green. Those are the areas of the county where a first responder with a hand-held radio outdoors should be able to talk with a dispatcher in the control center 95 percent of the time. That capability will fulfill the “95-95” goal of the radio system upgrade.

Emergency responders can now communicate with the control center by hand-held radios about 60 percent of the time across 65 percent of the county’s land area.

The few remaining white spaces on the map typically are deep valleys or ravines behind high ridges where 95-95 communication with the control center using hand-held radios will remain iffy.

Stutzman believes an updated version of the map, based on the findings of the drive testing during the next few weeks, will have even more of the squares colored green.

Technically speaking, the county is changing from a low- and high-band VHF radio system to a new 800 MHz digital system that will not only increase radio communication coverage across the county’s land area but will also furnish additional capacity for growth and improve interoperability — the capability of one radio system to communicate with other radio systems.

“This is a true system, not cobbled-together entities,” Stutzman said.

In the 1980s, when the county’s emergency radio system only had one transmitting tower, the central dispatch center lost contact with volunteer firefighters once they left their fire stations. More towers were added because firefighters increasingly were dispatched with pagers and more local signal strength was needed.

“We can talk to the fireman standing inside the (burning) building now” with the new equipment, Stutzman said, adding that firefighters, police and EMS responders will also be able to communicate directly with each other at emergency scenes.

“Everybody can hear what everybody is doing — if they need to know,” Stutzman said. That eavesdropping capability will be controlled initially by the programming of the radio equipment and also by the 911 dispatchers.

The county’s network of transmitting towers has been increased again, to 14, as part of the upgrade. Seven of the towers are connected by part of 88 miles of a new fiber optics cable and the remaining towers are linked by microwave connections.

The new system will serve five municipal police departments, 28 fire departments (23 of them located in the county), six ambulance stations and several county agencies including the sheriff’s department, probation department, coroner, hazardous materials response team and the airport. The improved system has enough capacity that other lower-priority users, such as snow plow drivers, may eventually communicate on the network.

A maximum of 2,500 radios can use the enhanced system, but Stutzman anticipates about 1,000 radios will be turned on in the network initially.

EMA has taken delivery of about $2 million worth of new radio equipment. About half of the purchase amount was supplied through a federal grant to outfit the fire services with new communications gear, including 753 new pagers for firefighters. EMA is coordinating an installation schedule to get the new radios distributed to agencies and programmed so training in their use can begin.

The county’s improved radio system will also satisfy a Federal Communications Commission mandate for narrow-banding (for EMS and police agencies), intended to increase the available spectrum in the VHF and UHF land mobile radio bands. The county must complete the narrow-banding requirements by Sept. 30. Stutzman hopes to have the county’s fire services also using the new radio system by January.

While upgrading the pubic safety radio system, the county commissioners opted to go a little further and also extend fiber optics service, for transmitting large amounts of data at high speeds, to more parts of the county. Stutzman said the new 88-mile fiber optics line, in addition to linking many of the radio towers, also extends past the front door of every county-owned property, including the jail, airport and parks. There are between 36 and 144 strands of fiber, each about the diameter of a human hair, in the finger-size bundle installed. The county retained ownership of 12 of those strands, and only two of those 12 are needed for the emergency radio system.

By retaining ownership of extra fiber optics strands in the bundle, the county will be able to use its new fiber network to send Internet, telephone and TV service to county-owned facilities at little or no cost to the county. Stutzman said those savings are expected to be significant and should be realized in the 2014-15 budget year.

Additionally, the county-owned radio towers are regarded as “vertical real estate,” and space on the towers in the future may be leased to commercial companies.

The benefit of the new radio system to county residents — aside from more reliable, faster communications in emergencies — is that fiber optics service will be available in more areas of the county. Salsgiver Inc., of Freeport, which owns the remaining fiber optics strands, will offer expanded broadband services — a “triple-play” of high-speed Internet, telephone and television service — to residents and businesses near the new fiber optics line.

Mike Burkett, in charge of new business development for Salsgiver, said there continues to be quite a bit of interest in the new line, especially from residents and business owners along Airport Road and along the line’s Blairsville-Saltsburg path. They want to know where the line is running and how soon it will be completed and “lit.”

Burkett has been referring people to the company’s website, www.gotlit.com, for more details on the services that eventually will be available.

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