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Jefferson County digital dispatch project moves a step forward

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Someday in the not-too-distant future, Jefferson County residents may be able to send text messages and videos to the 911 dispatch center.

But first, the county needs to upgrade its analog equipment to a digital system, a project that will cost more than $600,000, according to an update about the proposal delivered at the Board of Legislators’ General Services Committee meeting Tuesday night.

The upgrade would be for both hardware and software and eventually would allow the county to handle digital communications such as texts, data, images and video.

Jefferson County Director of Fire and Emergency Management Joseph D. Plummer told board members that the project will cost approximately $610,000 but that most of the money will come from state and federal grants.

The county’s share will be only about $130,000, of which $37,000 already has been allocated for regularly scheduled maintenance on the analog system, Mr. Plummer said.

A federal Emergency Management Preparedness Grant for $47,458 in 2013 and a projected $47,458 in 2014 and a state Homeland Security Program grant for a projected $90,000 also will go toward the purchase.

The bulk of the money for the upgrade will come through a $295,524 Public Safety Answering Point grant awarded to the county by the state in May.

When the announcement about the nearly $300,000 award was made, Mr. Plummer welcomed it as “good news” but said it was not enough to complete the work needed to upgrade the system properly.

The money for the Public Safety Answering Point grant comes from a $1.20 public safety communications surcharge assessed on the wireless phone bills of all state residents every month, resulting in revenue that is “well over $220 million per year,” Mr. Plummer said.

The problem is that most of that money is being dumped into the state’s general fund instead of being spent on emergency call centers, he said.

Of that $220 million, $25.5 million goes to the state police, $10 goes million to the counties and $1.5 million goes to the state emergency services revolving loan fund. Last year, an additional $30 million was paid out to counties on a competitive-grant basis.

In 2013, the amount paid out via competitive grants is supposed to go up to $70 million.

Even with that increased number, at least $133 million went straight into the state’s general fund in 2012 — a “black hole,” as Mr. Plummer described it.

Proposed legislation in the state Senate and Assembly would change the distribution model from dollar amounts to a percentage-based formula, with 58.3 percent going to the counties and 41.7 percent split between the state police and the revolving loan fund.

At the end of the last legislative session, the Senate version of the bill had passed but the measure was still in the Ways and Means Committee of the Assembly.

So far, the Public Safety Answering Point grant is the only revenue source that has been secured, County Administrator Robert F. Hagemann III said.

He said the proposed project has been discussed at length in the board’s ad hoc radio committee, steered by first-term Legislator Anthony J. Doldo, R-Watertown.

Mr. Doldo said Mr. Plummer’s update was intended to give board members an idea of the scope of the project so county officials could begin to set aside funds for the upgrade.

The ad hoc committee is composed of Legislators Barry M. Ormsby, R-Belleville, and Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing, in addition to Mr. Doldo, and also is working on a massive project to overhaul the county’s public safety communications infrastructure.

The cost of that project has been projected at anywhere from $15 million to $25 million, as the county may have to construct several radio towers to enhance mobile communications in the area.

The board is awaiting the preliminary results of a study about the project being conducted by Blue Wing Services Inc., a St. Paul, Minn., communications consultant.

Blue Wing is in Jefferson County this week meeting with local emergency medical service and fire department representatives.

After receiving updates about both projects from Mr. Plummer, the General Services Committee meeting was recessed until next week.

An initial report about its findings is expected when the General Services Committee meeting reconvenes next Thursday.

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