By Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY Sullivan County has been preparing for much of the past decade to vastly overhaul and upgrade its emergency communications system, and officials told legislators Tuesday that they’re ready to get to work.
The big question for both the county and local fire districts is how to pay for the changeover.
In concert with consultant Blue Wing, Inc. and utilizing 18 months of research and surveys, county leaders have chosen an upgrade plan that will cost $9.1 million, including four additional towers in Callicoon, Narrowsburg, Pond Eddy and Monticello, to supplement the existing (and to-be-upgraded) towers in Wurtsboro, Eldred, Liberty, Grahamsville and Tennanah Lake.
Public Safety Commissioner Dick Martinkovic said the new towers would help eliminate dead zones where current radios simply can’t get a signal.
“Hopefully we can get those bad areas off the map,” he told legislators, “so we don’t have weak communications.”
The goal, said Martinkovic, is a “safer, stronger countywide system” that can also interoperate with neighboring counties.
The upgrade would create common frequencies for all emergency responders (fire, ambulance, highway, police), called VHF High Band.
The county has already negotiated to purchase the six needed frequencies (and equipment) from Motorola, expected to cost $4.2 million.
The frequencies are greatly desired by other counties, indicated Blue Wing’s Mark Hoppe, as they offer reliable, interference-free signals without the need for extra equipment.
But in a county already facing a daunting budget deficit, legislators wondered how taxpayers could afford $9.1 million in upgrades, however much they’re needed.
Past Yulan Fire Dept. Chief Bill Hofaker also wondered how local fire districts the taxing jurisdictions which fund volunteer fire departments would swallow the additional expense.
The county is not paying for individual departments’ equipment upgrades (i.e., portable and mobile radios), and Hofaker estimated most departments will need to spend about $35,000-$40,000 to be able to utilize the new system, unless grants are obtained.
Martinkovic said some departments have listened and others haven’t to a suggestion he’s made for the past six years: sock away $5,000 a year explicitly for this expense.
Nevertheless, Hofaker said Yulan’s commissioners and fire dept. leaders agreed this week to officially oppose the county’s upgrade from low-band to high-band.
“We’re happy with low-band,” he explained, admitting that the department already enjoys reliable radio service from the nearby Eldred tower.
“The problem is, not everybody lives under a tower,” replied Martinkovic.
He added that fire districts may realize some extra savings by buying the new equipment in bulk (police agencies and ambulance corps are already on high-band systems, he indicated).
But the next step is for the county itself to determine how to finance the project.
“I think my colleagues would agree it’s painfully obvious we can’t bond the entire $9 million next year,” Legislator Kathy LaBuda acknowledged, “but if we can do it piecemeal ...”
That and other ideas are being put together for presentation to legislators at their September 20 meeting.
There is some help coming, in the form of a million-dollar grant that’s brought the plan below the original $10.5 million estimate, and legislators plan to lobby Albany to release more of the 911 surcharge revenues received from every phone bill (the county currently gets $38,000 a year, which officials say is below what is actually collected in-county).
And if new towers are built, neighboring counties, other government/emergency agencies, and cell phone providers may pay the county to locate their own antennae on those towers, added 911 Coordinator Alex Rau.
He was one of several who said the county’s 1980s-era radio system including equipment sheds which feature a fan for cooling and a light bulb for heating delicate electronics is not only in desperate need of improvement but simply can’t be maintained any longer.
“It definitely needs to be upgraded bad,” agreed John Conley, the county’s radio technician for the past 24 years.