The multi-million dollar replacement of the entire 800 megahertz radio system for Ottawa County will cost taxpayers nothing, the county emergency management director says.
And for the west end of the Ottawa County, the retooling of the nearly 20-year system means remedying a transmission communication problem that has been a source of ire for years.
“We really haven’t broken ground yet,” said Fred Petersen, director of the Ottawa County Emergency Management Agency. “We have been working on design plans for the new system.”
Currently, October 2013 is the target date for the changeover. The work requires revamping of the system’s three towers, adding new antennas, new shelters and their equipment support system contained within as well as replacing nearly 1,000 radios across the county. The 800 MHz system is used as the primary radio service by the Ottawa County Sheriff’s Department and most of the fire/EMS departments. A few departments also use the 460 MHz system.
According to the Federal Communications Commission website, the change is coming about to address a growing problem of harmful interference to 800 MHz public safety communication systems caused by high-density commercial wireless systems. In July 2004, the commission adopted a comprehensive plan to reconfigure the band nationwide. This plan, overseen by the commission’s Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau, aims to protect the lives of first responders and other emergency personnel.
“We’ve had some of those interference issues,” Petersen said. “And the government decided it was up to Sprint Nextel to fund changing these systems. Otherwise, how would we do this on our own? I don’t know.”
FirstEnergy has already done preliminary work on the three towers it owns and operates. The towers are located in Lakeside, Oak Harbor and Clay Center. Construction of the shelter houses and their supporting network alone is estimated to cost $3.8 million, Petersen said. Sprint Nextel will be paying that money directly to the vendors providing the equipment for the local service.
And as for the radios themselves, “It’s not like we would be buying them ‘off the shelf’ per se,” the director added. The average single radio costs obtained through the Harris Corporation run about $2,500, he said.
Currently, the county 800MHz system operates across five frequencies. Two of those are being taken away and will be replaced two new ones, Petersen said. In a number of cases locally, the cellular network interference with public safety communications has occurred in the west end, where there had been some tower issues. Currently, service in the far end near Clay Center is a receive-only. The new system will improve those communications by including transmission communication also, Petersen explained.
Installing a new system of this magnitude requires a lot of technical expertise. In response, the county commissioners in August approved a consulting agreement with Blue Wing Services Inc. The $75,000 contract covers the firm’s assistance from Aug. 1, 2012 to Dec. 31, 2014, according to the commissioners’ log.
“Their primary purpose is to provide technical resources to oversee the new radio system,” Petersen said.
The changeover is also complicated by the fact that the old system must stay up and running until the new system is fully operational, he noted.
And as they plunge into revamping the emergency radio system, the commissioners are considering another change in sorts. They are mulling a possible radio system collaboration with the City of Parma that may help decrease thousands of dollars for costs for emergency communications services hardware, maintenance and upgrades in the future, Petersen confirmed. Parma is one of three systems in the state which parallels the one used by Ottawa County.
Commissioners met in recent weeks with Parma officials to talk about the maintenance and cost-sharing project potentials. The idea was initially pitched to them by Cleveland Communications, the company that handles the radio service for both Parma and Ottawa County.
One key advantage would be having backup databases uploaded to their system, Petersen said. “If we lost our system for some reason, they would still have the information,” he explained.
Petersen said an alliance with Parma would put Ottawa County one step closer to state officials’ goal of one day having all emergency systems tied together.
“It’s all very preliminary,” Petersen said. “But it is a goal to make the system one day operable with state services.”