Archive for Thursday, April 14, 2005

Voters heed radio SOS

Sales tax to buy communications system upgrade

April 14, 2005

The days when a Lansing Police officer has to be routed through a Leavenworth County dispatcher to communicate with a Leavenworth Police officer a half block away aren't finished just yet.

But thanks to the passage of the countywide 1 percent sales tax last week, the end of such scenarios is on the horizon.

One of the Leavenworth County Commission's stated priorities for spending funds from the sales tax was to address the issue of "radio interoperability" among the county's public safety agencies. In other words, they want to spend part of the sales tax money on radios that will give the agencies the ability to communicate directly with each other without being forced to go through an intermediary.

The problem is rampant throughout the county, said Chuck Magaha, the county's emergency preparedness director.

Currently, public service agencies use radios that operate on one of three radio bandwidths: UHF, VHF or 800 megahertz. An agency using a UHF signal cannot communicate directly with one employing radios on a VHF signal. For example, Lansing Police cannot talk directly via radio to Leavenworth Police. The same is true for Leavenworth Fire Department and the Fire District No. 1.

"If we have a major incident happen," Magaha worries, "communications is our main nightmare in getting started."

Radio interoperability gained national prominence in the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Police and firefighters in New York couldn't communicate directly with each other.

The Federal Communications Commission has since stepped in and is requiring public safety agencies nationwide to address the issue. It is giving states and municipalities a deadline of 2013 to make their radio communications systems seamless.

The mandate, Magaha says, is necessary. "It's an officer-safety scenario," he said.

But it's also going to be expensive.

The most common handheld radio now in use by public safety agencies in the county - whether by a Tonganoxie Police officer, the Fire District No. 1 fire chief or the Leavenworth County sheriff - is an analog model that costs in the neighborhood of $700-$1,000, Magaha said.

Those analog radios are no longer being sold; the market now has gone digital. And they've gotten more expensive, too, about $2,500 for a bottom-of-the-line radio to $5,000 at the high end of the spectrum.

"It's the same exact size, the same exact antenna, you know, it's just that the guts inside have changed," Magaha said, noting there are other costs involved with the switchover, including antennae and other components.

Magaha said he, Sheriff Dave Zoellner and other officials were in the "very preliminary" stages of the county's planning on the radio issue. But Magaha estimated the total cost for building a new system from the ground up could be $13 million to $18 million.

The county likely won't have to do anything that extreme. It can employ its existing communications towers to be refitted with updated equipment. It also likely will piggyback off of communications towers the Kansas Highway Patrol and Kansas Department of Transportation have in the county.

It will require new radios throughout the county's public service agencies.

"If we went with just 200 end users to start off, we're looking at about $300,000 annually to support a lease program through Kansas Highway Patrol," Magaha said.

That's why the sales tax receipts will be so critical.

Magaha said his likely recommendation to the County Commission would include the county picking up the tab for the radios.

"There's an awful lot of volunteer agencies out there, and the volunteer fire departments do not have a budget to cover the funding for a $2,500 radio. You take a $2,500 radio out of some of these budgets - just one radio and that's at the low end of this particular unit - that's hitting a budget pretty hard. They just don't have the tax base. So this one-cent sales tax is going to be a big boost in allowing them to upgrade without the cost affecting their budgetary process."

Magaha said the Sheriff's Office likely would be the first to see its system upgraded, since it's the heart of the system.

He was hesitant giving a timetable - "We're still kinda premature, we're still kinda crawling, but we'll get up and start walking," he said. But he estimated the planning process would last about 18 months, with decisions about whether to lease or buy equipment and the new system being brought online after the planning.

"I've got seven years to get this totally implemented and changed over," Magaha said. "Is that going to be possible? I think so."

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