05/20/08 — To pick VIPER or not to pick VIPER

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To pick VIPER or not to pick VIPER

By Matthew Whittle
Published in News on May 20, 2008 1:52 PM

With the Wayne County Board of Commissioners' quarter-cent sales tax referendum having failed by a more than a 60-percent margin, officials are beginning to look at other options to fund a new emergency communications system.

But as they do, questions have arisen in the county about whether the proposed VHF P25 Digital-Trunking system, seen in action at the U.S. Army's Fort Dietrich in Frederick, Md., or the state's 800-MHz VIPER system, used primarily by the Highway Patrol, would be the best choice.


For the county, the main concern is its paging system, which is based on a VHF platform.

"Today a radio-activated pager that they wear on their side is the most consistent and dependable means to notify volunteers of a call," communications supervisor Delbert Edwards said.

He explained that to keep those pagers operating under the VIPER system, both systems would have to be maintained.

But, countered Capt. Alan Melvin with the state Highway Patrol and a spokesman for the VIPER system, even with a new VHF system, the county will still have to maintain separate transmitters for the pagers.

However, Edwards explain-ed, the base equipment is still the same.

"We won't have to operate two completely independent systems," he said.

Talk groups

"The system we're proposing offers Wayne County over 16,000 talk groups," Edwards said, referring to the number of channels available for groups to talk on independently.

VIPER, he said, has a limit of 64,000 users statewide, which means counties like Wayne would receive only 40 talk groups -- although Melvin emphasized there is no maximum.

County officials, however, have identified 86 talk groups that they would like to use, including ones for each fire department, law enforcement agency and rescue squad, as well as open ones for dispatch and other purposes.

Of those, 20 would get the most daily use -- compared to the nine frequencies currently receiving the most chatter.

"It would be less complicated," Edwards said. "It would be less traffic on the dispatch lines."


"The cornerstone of the system is that it provides 95/95 coverage," Edwards said.

That means coverage in 95 percent of the county, 95 percent of the time.

Allowing that, county officials explained, will be their five towers -- one in Goldsboro, two scheduled to be built this summer in Mount Olive and Fremont, and two being built by U.S. Cellular in Seven Springs and Fremont.

Those, county officials said, would give them better in-county coverage than the VIPER system, which will have only its Goldsboro tower in Wayne County.

The others will be in Seven Springs, Lee Plant, Kornegay, Farmville, Smithfield, Newton Grove, Wilson and Bailey.

Melvin, though, is confident that VIPER can provide the same 95/95 coverage -- even though he acknowledged its towers are strategically located to provide the best coverage for the region, not just Wayne County.


Perhaps the biggest draw of the VIPER system -- and the reason it's being pushed by the state -- is the fact that it's open to all emergency response agencies.

"VIPER is just a common platform that allows for interoperability," Melvin said. "But we're not mandating or telling counties they have to use it. All we're doing is partnering with counties to provide this infrastructure. But if, for example, there was a terrorist attack on Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, all the other responders will be on VIPER."

Wayne County officials, though, are confident that their proposed VHF system will be able to use hard patches -- other radios physically built into the system -- to communicate with VIPER, the base and all surrounding counties.

Of the counties surrounding Wayne, Lenoir has its own 800-MHz system that is VIPER compatible, Duplin is switching over to VIPER, Sampson is mostly on VIPER, Johnston has its own 800-MHz system that is not VIPER compatible, Wilson has a mix of VHF and Nextel cellphones, and Greene is on a VHF platform.

"We will have the ability to talk to them directly. For the users it will be seamless," Edwards said.

And, Melvin acknowledged, that is the ultimate goal -- to have everybody able to communicate with each other, which is something that doesn't happen now.

"(VIPER) is a voice-trunking system the state decided to go with because, one) trunking provides a secure environment, and two) we went with 800 MHz because that was where the real estate was -- real estate meaning the number of frequencies available," he said. "But our ultimate goal is interoperable communication."


Also playing into the county's decision is cost.

The two towers expected to be built this summer will cost an estimated $1.5 million. The rest of the proposed system, including nearly 16,000 radios, will cost about $8.5 million.

For VIPER, even though the state is building the towers, Gurley estimated costs to be about 40 percent higher because of the need to buy new 911 center equipment and new radios -- likely through a less competitive bidding process because of the smaller number of vendors.

And, even though Melvin maintained that any existing grant opportunities are primarily for VIPER, Edwards said that with Homeland Security funds dwindling every year, there is little available state money for either.

But the bottom line, Emergency Management Director Joe Gurley explained, is not the cost, but rather their confidence in the VHF system's technical capabilities and future potential -- including future wireless Internet abilities, which is an especially attractive option for Sheriff Carey Winders and his deputies.

"We've got about 550-square-miles we're responsible for," Gurley said. "The state is concerned about the whole state, from Manteo to Murphy. Our needs are closer in. The need for us for a statewide system isn't like it is for them.

"Our decision is based on operational needs, and to me, that's more the issue than the dollars and cents."