(Dispatch, The (Lexington, NC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Feb. 26--But developing a new, more technologically advanced system won't come cheap, as estimates for the most highly recommended project total nearly $12 million, according to an updated radio study originally paid for by county government.
While the project has not been approved, it is included as a phased initiative on the county's most recent capital improvement plan, with funding starting next fiscal year.
"Due to the age of the current system, there is not much else that can be done to improve reliability, coverage and interoperability short of replacement," Davidson County Manager Robert Hyatt wrote in a letter to the Davidson County Board of Commissioners earlier this month. "I realize the county has several other major projects included in the (capital improvement plan), including a new high school and new sheriff's office; however, I do not think we can wait any longer to address this issue."
A northern Davidson County high school, estimated to cost $42 million, and the projected $7 million sheriff's office are the two largest projects set to start in the next two years on the capital improvement plan. The county has also committed to improvements for a building planned to be the home of the new clerk of court's office and an EMS base in northwest Davidson County, which together will cost about $2 million.
Funding for the new radio system is scheduled to begin next fiscal year, according to the plan.
First responder agencies operate on different frequencies, which makes communication between departments more difficult, and most use alternative methods for interoperability. For instance, when the Davidson County Sheriff's Office wants to communicate with another agency, deputies tell 911 operators the message, who then relay that communication to the agency, said Terry Bailey, director of the county's 911 center.
There are also coverage "dead spots," or areas where little or no radio signal can be received, in the southern, western and northern portions of the county, which are further away from existing radio transmittal towers.
A recent FCC mandate forced agencies to convert to smaller bandwidths to increase channel efficiency, which resulted in some coverage issues with the system, Bailey said.
"What we found was that pagers were not activating for ambulances and fire departments," Bailey said, adding there were more "dead spots" than in the past.
The radio study, prepared by Linker Communications Services, recommended the county upgrade to a trunked radio system, or a computer-controlled, multi-frequency system that essentially allows multiple agencies to operate on the same communication platform.
Davidson County would control the trunked platform, but fire and law enforcement agencies would be able to use the system with proper radios. It's unclear if the county would charge a fee for other agencies to use the system, which is a common practice in other areas.
"The upgraded system would mean it would be a matter of turning a channel on a radio, and you would have direct communication with another agency," Bailey said.
Projected costs, which include new transmittal towers, portable radios and central transmitting equipment, total about $11.8 million in three different phases.
The project is supported by the Davidson County Public Safety Association Communications Committee, which includes representatives from emergency services departments across the county. Most county commissioners, including chairman Larry Potts, agreed with Hyatt's recommendation that the county start the planning process for the radios at the board's retreat last week.
Davidson County Commissioner Steve Jarvis inquired about alternatives that could alleviate some of the issues in the short term.
"My concern is that with all the major capital projects going on currently, including the new sheriff's office and the new clerk of court's office, whether this is something we can get by and push it off?" Jarvis said.
"We need to make this a part of the long-term plans," Potts said. "We need to move ahead and be realistic."
Nash Dunn can be reached at 249-3981, ext. 227, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Nash on Twitter: @LexDispatchNash
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