12/30/10 — County ready for radio system switch

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County ready for radio system switch

By Gary Popp
Published in News on December 30, 2010 1:46 PM

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Jerry Alfonso, project supervisor of Mission Critical Communications, installs a new communication radio into a Belfast Volunteer Fire Department truck. The company is installing the new radios in all of the emergency vehicles in Wayne County. The county has about 350 radios, and five site towers.

The Wayne County emergency communication system has received a $10 million dollar face lift.

Through a plan that has spanned nearly eight years, the county is officially prepared to make the switch from analog to digital radio communications.

County officials expect to go "live" with the new system in early February.

The move responds to the need of improved communication between emergency responders and adherence to future federal regulations.

County officials said adequate communication was not available in up to 30 percent of the entire coverage area in the previous system, which had components 50 years old.

County Manager Lee Smith said under the old system communication devices used by emergency agency officials were inoperable in some critical locations including the areas inside of hospitals and shopping centers.

The antiquated system was not only a problem for emergency responders on the job, but also for those who are regularly called into duty.

"When you have a volunteer firefighter who is in a truck or out on a tractor and he or she is waiting on a page and it does not go off -- you can't respond," Smith said.

Joe Gurley, Director of Emergency Management Offices of Wayne County, is on board with the new system and its ability to greatly minimize the areas of inoperability.

"We are looking for 95/95. We want coverage 95 percent of the time in 95 percent of the area for portable devices," Gurley said.

Gurley said the update that has occurred in not exclusive to emergency communication.

"What we are seeing now is the same thing that happened to the television industry in 2009 when it went from analog to digital, now it is happening to public safety," Gurley said.

Naturally, there were various options presented throughout the planning process.

"We chose to go with the option we did because it really is cutting edge and because it met all the requirements of the FCC, as far as narrow banding, and for the ability to communicate with everyone around us," Smith said.

A federally mandated initiative, narrow banding is a process that results in division the bandwidth that a communication systems operates.

Through narrow banding, the county is essentially adapting to a finite amount of bandwidth. With less bandwidth available, Wayne County's communication system is being coerced into making its operations more precise.

"It is the difference between shooting a shotgun and a rifle," said Blair Tyndall, Emergency Management Services Safety Manager.

Blair said narrow banding is taking place because frequencies are more highly sought after than in previous years.

The state's communication system, VIPER, which is used by the state Highway Patrol, was one option for Wayne County to adopt.

Smith said that the VIPER system may be a good fit for Highway Patrol, but it lacks the ability to penetrate certain structures, a crucial capability for emergency responders.

County officials said the VIPER would be more costly and had the possibility of putting the county at the mercy of the state during a crisis.

Smith said he was not alone in declining the VIPER system.

"We collectively did not want the state of North Carolina to control our communication destiny. They were going to control when it was up, when it was down, who was going to talk and who was not going to talk," Smith said.

Lee said in cases of wide-scale emergencies, such as a hurricane, that can call for multiple-day emergency response he wanted to keep the communication system in Wayne County in the hands of local officials.

"I want to know that I have a system that I can control and that my folks can talk," Smith said.

Preliminary studies provided data that it would take eight towers to introduce the VIPER system, versus the five towers the new system is using.

"This is much more efficient," Smith said.

Smith said he is not aware of any other county board of commissioners that has picked up the tab to install a new communications system that has made virtually every piece of hardware from the old system obsolete.

"We put in radios and portables in every fire department, every police station, every Sheriff's Office vehicle and every ambulance countywide," Smith said.

Smith said the board has saved firefighters and police departments in Wayne County significant amounts of money by providing the radios and other hardware.

Smith said that it costs between $50,0000 and $80,000 to outfit a single fire department with the new communication hardware.

"That is a lot of pig pick-ins to a volunteer fire department," Smith said.

Although plans for the new system date back nearly a decade, swift action in the last year, including attaining and spending funds, has brought the large-scale project to fruition.

County officials rejected the option of implementing the new system piecemeal.

"We said we were going to jump off the cliff here and do it all at one time because the system was that bad," Smith said.

Lee said that since the consolidation of emergence services several years ago, Goldsboro and Mount Olive, in particular, have saved millions of dollars in EMS alone.

Local, state and federal incidents in recent years have brought new mandates and communication system, including the merger of the emergency communication systems of Goldsboro and Wayne County in 2002 and communication issues during hurricanes in the state, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina

The pager system used by emergency responders will continue to run on analog technology, but will face similar narrow banding requirements in 2013.

Additional narrow banding mandates for the communication system must be met in 2018 as well.

Officials say the progress made in 2010 will make it feasible to meet future mandates.