Emergency radio upgrade debate: costs outweigh advantages?
Story by Dan Hust
MONTICELLO February 1, 2013 Legislators and public safety officials continue to debate the necessity of upgrading the county’s emergency communications system.
Some legislators believe the county simply can’t afford to modernize the 30-year-old system, especially considering the estimate that any new equipment will only last around a decade.
Other county leaders, however, warn that it’s only going to get more expensive if pushed down the road.
In particular, more than $4 million worth of Motorola-owned frequencies and equipment need to be purchased soon if the county is to move ahead and surrounding counties are eager to grab them if Sullivan doesn’t.
“We need to have affirmation come from the Legislature,” urged Public Safety Commissioner Dick Martinkovic, who said the contract with Motorola expired in December. “... We need to come up with a new agreement with Motorola.”
The overall $9 million project, if approved, includes revamping existing towers, erecting new ones and changing over the emergency communications from low-band to high-band.
Police and EMS are already there, said officials, and a majority of the county’s fire departments have been transitioning as well. The county’s own Division of Public Works is also slated to go high-band.
“Without those frequencies, we really are in a very, very tough spot,” said Martinkovic, who estimated the county’s upgrade costs could be double without them. “... We’ve come to the point where financing of the project has to be put on paper.”
The county has already spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare for the transition, but not all fire departments are on board neither are all legislators.
“I don’t think anyone would dispute an upgrade in the county system,” noted Legislator Cindy Gieger. “... But I would wait until 2014, when a bond matures.”
Saying she supports emergency responders, Gieger insisted the county needs more time to responsibly finance the upgrade. But she also questioned the choice of system.
“I understand even with an upgrade, you’re still going to have dead zones,” she remarked.
E-911 Coordinator Alex Rau didn’t argue as much as point out the advantages of the new system, especially the ability to simulcast from all towers in the county (rather than having to pick one, as is the case now).
“Everyone will be able to hear and respond to a call,” Rau promised.
“It depends on your point of view as a fireman whether that’s a benefit or not,” replied Legislator Kitty Vetter, who had spoken with Yulan firefighters who had previously criticized the plan in front of legislators. “... The simulcast ability seems to be a subjective value, rather than an objective necessity.”
“Probably the most important function is interoperability,” noted Rau, referring to the ability of firefighters, police and ambulance workers to communicate on shared frequencies and equipment, along with neighboring counties.
“The firemen I talk to had stated, ‘Kitty, when you have a fire, those three parts [fire, police, EMS] are there [communicating on-scene],” Vetter replied.
“The question you have to ask yourself now: if your house is on fire, do you want two or 50 firefighters there?” Legislator Gene Benson asked her.
Budget Commissioner Josh Potosek said the county would need to set aside between half a million and $1.4 million a year from 2015-2026 to afford the system, which Gieger estimated would equate to a two-percent tax hike.
By the time it’s paid off in 2026, officials acknowledged it would be time for another upgrade, saying equipment does not last hardware or software as long as its predecessors. Only the towers are expected to continue in service for more than 20 years.
“I’m not against the firemen,” explained Vetter. “... I’m trying to hear both sides. Yes, we do need towers, and yes, I’m all for building the towers. The cost, I find, is very prohibitive.”
But Mark Hoppe of Blue Wing Services, who’s been the county’s consultant since 2009, said Sullivan really has little choice but to upgrade.
“Low-band is a legacy band that’s been out there 50 years,” he explained. “... You don’t really want to be on low-band anymore. You can’t design a system around it.
“... We don’t have a county in the state that’s staying with low-band.”
Deputy County Fire Coordinator Bill Lothrop urged legislators to seal the deal.
“If you go through the fire service, you can always find a few people who will speak negatively about things, but it is desperate,” he said. “... Please upgrade our radio system. We cannot wait any longer.”
Legislator Kathy LaBuda asked County Attorney Sam Yasgur to prepare a frequency purchase resolution for an unspecified Legislature meeting (presumably the same one that featured this discussion: Public Safety, scheduled for February 14 at 4 p.m.).
If the Legislature ultimately decides to go ahead, the system will be operational by 2015.