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September 19, 2013

County eyes emergency radio upgrades

By Joe Mahoney The Daily Star
Cooperstown Crier

---- — With an outdated emergency communications network that leaves first responders with large coverage gaps, Otsego County officials are hoping to upgrade the system in a way that will help emergency personnel to stay connected.

In recent years, the county has secured grants to refurbish its old radio towers and add new ones. But the radio equipment itself has not been replaced, and fire departments and emergency medical squads have had to cope with significant dead spots as well as congestion and interference problems because the current system runs on VHF low-band frequencies, officials said.

For instance, there are many areas in the county where electronic pagers issued to firefighters simply don’t pick up alerts because of the coverage gaps.

“The only solution for fire and EMS requires them to relocate to another band to correct the issue, which will require new radio equipment and additional sites,” said Mark Hoppe, principal consultant for Blue Wing Services. The company was first retained by Otsego County to help upgrade its communications network four years ago.

On Thursday, several county representatives, along with Sheriff Richard Devlin Jr. and other officials, got a detailed presentation on a multi-channel conventional simulcast system that is designed and manufactured by Tait Communications of Christchurch, New Zealand.

The company has submitted a proposal to the county that would meet its needs and — with a price tag of about $3 million — came in at a lower cost than a competing bid by one of its competitors, Motorola, said county Rep. James Powers, R-Butternuts.

Powers said he is examining several ways to fund the upgrade, including obtaining financing from Tait. He also noted the county stands to reap an infusion of funds once it has paid for its share of the assets of the public trash authority known as MOSA — the Montgomery, Otsego Schoharie Solid Waste Authority. In addition, the county’s financial squeeze should be significantly alleviated once the deficit-plagued Otsego Manor nursing home is privatized, he said.

The county’s existing emergency radio system only covers 50 to 60 percent of the county, Powers said, adding: “This would put us well over 90 percent. There are tremendous gaps now, and in some places there is no coverage at all for our firefighters and our EMS.”

The upgrade effort has been ongoing for six years, and the county, through the efforts of Psalm Wyckoff in the county Planning Department, has secured several grants that helped pay for the new towers, officials said.

“The radio system is the last piece we have to put in,” Powers said.

Helping to advance the Tait bid is local radio expert Dean Buccheri, operator of Creative Electronics in Oneonta. He said he would be available to help the county install and maintain the equipment.

“It’s going to simplify the dispatch operations and it’s going to simplify the end-user operations,” said Buccheri, the former chief of the Laurens Fire Department. “It’s much more modern technology than what the county has now, and it’s much more serviceable. Everything they would be putting in is brand-new, and it’s a fraction of the cost of some of the other technologies.”

The final decision on whether to complete the project and the choice of the vendor will be made by the full Board of Representatives. Prior to that, the Public Safety Committee will have further discussions and will consider the Motorola proposal, Powers said.