Coverage, interoperability behind SPLOST radio project
by Jessica Loeding
Feb 02, 2014 | 2290 views | 0 0 comments | 100 100 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Coming in Clear
Leigh Ann Whitener, a Bartow County Sheriff’s Office communications officer, keeps an eye on her computer screens in the E-911 Division work area where communications are handled for the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office, all law enforcement municipalities within the county, city and county fire departments, and Emergency Medical Services. Bartow County designated $15 million in 2014 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax funds for upgrading the radio system. SKIP BUTLER/The Daily Tribune News
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For police officers and first responders in Bartow County, a radio is a lifeline to assistance, and those in the far reaches of the county at times find themselves cut off.

Bartow County agencies and municipal departments across the county are connected through a public safety radio system whose center is the E-911 communications hub at the Bartow County Sheriff’s Office. But, with 470 square miles to cover, it comes as no surprise that coverage can be an issue.

Therefore, in the 2014 Special Purpose Local Option Sales Tax referendum, the county designated $15 million to upgrade the radio system.

“The radio project is to update the public safety radio systems for the E-911, the county sheriff, county fire, Cartersville police, Cartersville fire, and the police forces of the other municipalities. The current system does not cover the county completely,” County Administrator Peter Olson said. “Radio technology nationwide is in the process of upgrading from older analog systems to digital systems, and many jurisdictions are choosing to switch from VHF frequencies, which we use currently, to 700 MHz or 800 MHz systems.”

“The upgrade is extremely important for this agency; we are ‘the hub’ if you will,” said E-911 Maj. Jessica Pruett. “We currently dispatch for Bartow County Sheriff’s Office, Cartersville PD, Bartow County EMS, Bartow County Fire, Cartersville Fire, Adairsville PD, Emerson PD, Euharlee PD, Kingston PD, White PD. We also monitor and communicate with Bartow County Board of Education Campus Police on the ‘MRD’ frequency.”

Stemming from the experience of emergency personnel in New York on Sept. 11, Olson said agencies across the country are looking to improve communications across jurisdictions.

“9/11 identified a problem in New York that many different agencies could not communicate with each other due to different radio frequencies and standards. After that, the federal government has tried to [push] for more common systems. Part of this project would aim to increase interoperability with neighboring jurisdictions in the event of a large disaster,” he said.

Coverage is a concern for Sheriff Clark Millsap, whose 255-employee department will feel the effects most.

“The impact on the sheriff’s office will be huge. Anytime we, as law enforcement, can use new technology to help keep our county safe we need to utilize it,” he said. “... Because of the federal government instituting the narrowbanding for radio frequencies, we have to have a system that will allow us to communicate with our officers. It is essential that a deputy in the field be able to communicate with the 911 center and other officers, whether it be in the patrol car or on a portable radio.”

Aside from BCSO, Olson said Cartersville Police Department may be the second-most affected agency — Bartow County Fire Department has more employees but he believes CPD uses the radio system more frequently.

“As you may well be aware, reliable communication is critical to all public safety,” CPD Chief Tommy Culpepper said. “My desire is that a radio system will be put in place that will provide first responders with the quality and reliability in communications that are needed for the present and will grow to meet the future needs of all end users.”

Although references have been made to “dead zones” in the more rural portions of the county, details on those specific locations were not released.

“... Anytime a company or government organization utilizes radio communications, the topography of the land and masses or buildings within an area can interfere with the radio waves, thus causing a ‘dead zone,’” Pruett said. “This can cause no communication at all, or partial or one-way communication. When there is little or no communication, lives may be at risk, so of course, these are a concern to all agencies involved.”

Under the current system, two main radio towers are operable, but the terrain often interferes with the straight-line radio transmissions.

“... More [radio towers] will likely be necessary, but we won’t know where or how many until the system is designed. The terrain of Bartow County can be difficult for radio transmissions, which travel in straight lines,” Olson said. “The new technology is digital, which basically means computer-driven, which means the towers and base stations require new computers and the handheld and mobile radios must be upgraded. It is similar to the change from the old analog cellphones to new digital cellphones.”

Funding for the upgrade begins arriving this month, but a completed projects is likely years away.

“There is not a deadline [for completion]. The funding will start arriving with the first SPLOST payment in February 2014,” Olson said. “We are in the hiring process for a consultant, and then the consultant will help us identify needs and capabilities. Then we will design a system, put it out to bid and then construct it. That process may take two years.

“It is extremely high priority for public safety. The 2014 SPLOST was designed so that this money, along with the landfill expansion, come off the top as a Level 1 project. Those two projects will be funded; they receive the first $381,944 of each month’s receipts. That number equals 1/72 of $27,500,000; the SPLOST runs 72 months.”

County, Cartersville and municipal representatives have met to begin discussions on the project and look to select a consultant soon.

Saying the agencies are “working very well together,” Millsap said he believes the digital version of the current system may be the best choice.

“We have tested the digital VHF system, and it is the best option we have found so far,” he said. “The system we tested gave us coverage throughout the county on the existing towers that we have.”

That option is cheaper than the move to a 800 MHz system, which neighboring Floyd County moved to last year.

“As an example, Floyd County recently completed an 800 MHz upgrade that cost $23,000,000. Floyd is roughly our size. We cannot afford that sort of system right now, which also costs $600,000 per year in maintenance costs,” Olson said. “So we may have to get a partial upgrade and improve it further later. The main priority is closing the coverage gaps and ensuring interoperability.”

SPLOST funds also will be used to upgrade the E-911 center, which are in the planning phase, according to Pruett, who said she supports the option that provides coverage for the safety of personnel and residents.

“As I stated earlier, I will support any option allowing for improvements to our 911 center and all radio frequency equipment, which will continue to keep our responders safe which will benefit the citizens of Bartow County,” she said.

Culpepper said he is looking for the best all-around system for everyone involved.

“At this point I am not ‘married’ to any type or brand in a system. I simply look for a system that will be a good value to the taxpayer, meet our needs and have a long life. To me the only option, currently, is the one that best fits us,” he said. “If the right system is installed, it will provide much greater reliability in our communications, not only from 911 to the officers on the street, but from agency to agency within the county. It will also make it easier to coordinate help from outside agencies in times of emergency, if properly designed.”

Regardless of the system chosen, Culpepper added, the decision should be the right one for those funding the project — the citizens.

“The citizens of this county voted on a SPLOST with funds designated for this program. My hope is that, when we look back at this project, everyone connected will be able to have some pride in knowing that the right things were done for the overall good of our citizens,” he said. “That may mean spending more than you want, but you have to consider, how many times will we have to opportunity to undertake a public safety project that impacts not only the users by the citizens we serve?”