06/26/11 — County working out kinks in new system

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County working out kinks in new system

By News-Argus Staff
Published in News on June 26, 2011 12:43 AM

After more than two months of operation, Wayne County officials are still working the bugs out of the county's new emergency communication system.

Wayne County Office Emergency Services director Joe Gurley said there have been some problems with the system, adding that he and other officials are working to resolve any issues emergency personnel encounter. He encouraged them to share any difficulties they might be having with the new system.

Getting the $10 million system to working at its optimum level will take some time, Gurley said.

"I will say that as of right now, I am not saying it won't change by lunchtime, but the system has not met my expectations," Gurley said. "I mean that professionally speaking I have high expectations for it, and it is not there yet.

"For what we have spent ... everybody has brand new radios, five times the backbone than we had before. Everything is as modern as it can be and it is all computerized -- there are no more crystals and ragged stuff out there. Anything we got was better than what we had."

Fire Marshal Bryan Taylor agreed.

"It is worth it right now as we stand here and speak," Taylor said.

Gurley said one of the complaints he has heard is that firefighters in training have had trouble talking to one another via portable radios.

"That is absolutely true," he said. "Every time we have the problems, we ask them to call us so that we can replicate it. We have had this problem before, mostly in Elroy. I just think that Elroy has a high call volume area, so obviously they are going to see these things more."

When a glitch occurs, county officials work with employees of Communications International, the company that sold Wayne the new system, to re-create the conditions under which the problem arose.

The system is one huge computer and one little configuration change can make a big difference, Taylor said.

"When they make a change at the Goldsboro site, it just doesn't affect the Goldsboro site," he said. "Then they have to go back and check the other sites, too, because one change here can affect the others."

Gurley said the county's experience has not been unique.

"We have talked to other states that put in similar systems and they will tell you it was a process of elimination," he said. "It's not turn on the system, and it works perfectly. I have talked to some who said it took a couple of months. I have talked to some who said it took 18 months to get it perfect like they want it."

The system became active April 4 and there is a "burn-in" period," Gurley said -- a chance for the customer, in this case, the county, to decide if the system is performing as expected.

"There is no magical time for what that is," he said. "The burn-in period is when you are testing and the customer accepts it. We have not accepted it yet because it is not optimized and has not met our expectations."

Gurley said he has heard rumors that some lapel microphones are not water-resistant and that the portable radio units do not transmit from inside some buildings.

All of the equipment is built to military specifications and the lapel microphones purchased by the county are water-resistant, he said.

"There are some lapel mikes that were bought by individuals, or individual departments that are not working good with the system," Gurley said. "There are some problems there. I just know we bought the portable radios and the handheld radios with military specs. What we have experienced, sometimes with problems with portable radios, have been the mike and we have determined it is the Stone Mountain mike.

"There are places probably where they cannot talk indoors, but you have to remember this system was built, designed on 95/95 outdoor coverage. There is never a guarantee you will get 95/95 indoor coverage."

There were places that the old analog system did not work, he added.

Gurley said it is unfair to compare the old system -- a hodge-podge of equipment dating as far back as the 1960s --to the new one.

"Analog will penetrate better than digital, but the old system only had one tower and we have five towers now with the new system, which means it should be better," Gurley said. "The old portables and the old system did talk from inside most of the buildings, not all of them, to the outside world on the same ground, but you could not, for the most part, talk on a portable back to central (dispatch). The portable just wasn't designed to talk that far that is why we went to the five-site system to have better coverage.

"There is a possibly that if I am on the new system inside a building like a Walmart or the jail or hospital, some thick construction, masonry, concrete or rebar or lot of metal, it is possible that I can't talk to you. But that is why we have V-Tach channels programmed into them. V-Tach channels are just four channels that are federally owned and the purpose of them is for this particular reason. I think as we go on and going to certain areas people identify as a poor reception area, I think if they were to make an interior attack they would go ahead and switch to that V-Tach channel so they can talk to the outside."

"You probably have better coverage with portables now than you have ever had," he added.

Some areas near Elroy, Oakland, Dudley and N.C. 55 at Mount Olive have experienced inconsistent coverage, Gurley said.

Engineers are still on staff and on site and are moving antennas around to optimize coverage, he said. At times, some of the antennas are taken off-line, he said.

"When we are doing this channel switching and field testing they will take three or four (operations channels) down and work with them for a while until they get the antennas moved around. Then they will cut them back on."

Gurley said he thinks that has confused people who think that not all of the 10 operations channels work.

There have been occasions when tower sites have been temporarily "lost," Gurley said.

"We lost Seven Springs one night for 10 or 15 minutes," he said. "We lost Fremont once for 10 or 15 minutes, and we lost Goldsboro one time for less than that, but things like that happen. Redundancy is built into it, if you lose one, the other four are still working. I don't know that we were ever dead in the water."

However, he said rumors that the system was down when a tornado-spawning storm crossed over the county in April were not true.

"Everything was up and running as far as I know," Gurley said. "We did lose 911 circuitry up here. We have a 911 server fail and we had to move to the back-up center and reroute the phone lines from here to there. It had nothing to do with the radio."

Back then, the county would call television stations that would run crawlers along the bottom of the screen that that the system was down and provide an alternate number to call.

"Now we just make the switch," Gurley said. "It is seamless."

And it is going to get even better, he said.

"We are in the process of building a new back-up center. With the new 911 system, we are going to be able to do texting and stream video."

The back-up 911 center was used for about 45 minutes on the day of the storm, Taylor said.

"We were probably two hours from the storms coming into the area," he said. "In fact, we already had the trunk lines back up, alarm lines back up. It was all back up before the storm even got here."

Gurley said he still hears comments that the county should have gone to the state-owned VIPER system.

"It is obsolete," he said. "(The state) is changing the whole backbone. They have already just about allotted all of their user groups."

"They are maxed out and they don't even have a third of the users that they want," Taylor said. "(State officials) have met with the same manufacturer that we use, Harris, about putting in a system."

Gurley said he also is aware of rumors that county employees have been told not to talk about the system. Gurley said that he was not going to speak for other department heads, but that he has not made any such demand.

"All I have said is basically don't be complaining right now until we get the situation addressed," he said. "Now, after the situation's addressed, yes, if you have a concern or complaint, we can certainly address it then, but just to be mealy mouthing around with the fire guys, or the EMS guys or the deputies or policemen and feeding off each other, no."