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Jefferson County legislators get first look at $15 million communications overhaul

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Jefferson County legislators got their first glimpse Thursday at a plan for a multiyear, $15 million overhaul of the county’s aging public safety communications systems.

“This is one of the most expensive projects we’ve been looking at in a long time,” said General Services Committee Chairman Philip N. Reed, R-Fishers Landing. “We’re going to keep scrutinizing it. It’s going to take a while. We want to make sure we get it right.”

Given the state of the county’s system, which dates to the 1970s and is full of problems, the upgrade is a necessary project, according to Jefferson County Director of Fire and Emergency Management Joseph D. Plummer.

The system does not have the capacity or the power to accommodate the demands placed on it by the county’s emergency response personnel, who have to be able to communicate across several agencies to coordinate efforts in the event of a natural disaster, Mr. Plummer said.

To remedy this, officials are advocating for a system that will relieve the demands placed on the county’s dispatch center by pushing communications to a more portable environment, with vehicle-based operations moving to handheld units operating on ultra-high frequencies.

After meeting with some 150 emergency responders, law enforcement and military personnel from around the county over the past two weeks, Lee R. Palmer and Mark A. Hoppe of Blue Wing Services Inc., a St. Paul, Minn., communications consultant, presented a preliminary plan that called for the design and implementation of a new system that will involve the procurement of highly coveted frequencies, the construction of antenna towers at 12 to 15 sites in the county at a cost of $150,000 to $200,000 each, millions of dollars in software and hardware costs and an annual $700,000 maintenance fee.

The cost of developing the tower sites does not include the cost of purchasing the land on which they will be built.

Once all equipment is installed, including high-powered microwave dishes to connect the towers, the sites will end up costing $1 million each.

Acting now will prevent an additional cost later, the Blue Wing consultants told legislators when asked about the price of inaction.

Frequencies, which will become the foundation upon which the new system will be built, are in high demand and neighboring counties already are vying for a piece of the spectrum.

Once those frequencies are assigned, it is very rare for them to become available again, Mr. Hoppe said.

Without the frequencies, which must be approved by Canadian as well as U.S. officials, planning for the rest of the system becomes extremely difficult.

Mr. Plummer told legislators that as the county’s system ages, it will become more and more difficult to find replacement parts for radios and other components, potentially creating dangerous outages.

The proposed system also would allow the county to move from analog to digital communication and enable increased interoperability among various agencies, including public service employees as well as state and federal officials.

The plan, if adopted, would be implemented through four phases — design, site development, connectivity and installation of radio system — over three years.

Several other counties in the state have undertaken similar initiatives, according to Mr. Palmer and Mr. Hoppe.

Madison County spent $14 million in 2009, Nassau County spent $42 million in 2005, Onondaga spent $32 million in 2007 and Oswego spent $15 million in 2011 to upgrade their systems.

Though there are state and federal grants that may help defray some of the cost, a large portion of the expense of building the system is expected to be borne by the county.

Perhaps recognizing the sticker shock felt by legislators, the consultants Thursday night tried to ease the blow by pointing out at least one opportunity to recoup some money.

Mr. Hoppe told legislators that the tower infrastructure will last the longest out of all of the components of the system and that space on the towers could be leased for revenue.

A more formal report is expected from the Blue Wing consultants in the fall.

Until then, Mr. Plummer said, he hopes to capitalize on the interest the study has generated among county emergency response personnel to convince legislators just how important the project will be.

“My vision ... is to get everybody in the public safety business in Jefferson County on this system,” Mr. Plummer said.

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