Page County approves upgrades to emergency radio system

By: Ryan Matheny

(Shenandoah) – Upgrades to Page County’s emergency communications can now move forward.

At a joint meeting of the county’s Emergency Management Agency and E-911 Board Thursday night, members approved a recommendation from Jack Hart of Tusa Consulting Services to upgrade the county to a single-channel, simulcast radio system. Emergency personnel from around the county have complained of problems with radio communications since the county switched to a single dispatch center last spring. Addressing board members, Hart said the solution has two phases, the first of which involves improving the link between the Clarinda dispatch tower and Shenandoah’s transmitter located on the city’s water tower. Hart says the current connection uses UHF Radio, which he calls unreliable.

“The problem is these links between Clarinda and Shenandoah are not very reliable,” said Hart. “From a system standpoint — while they were an expedient way to do things — if you really want to have a very reliable and modern system, you don’t want to be relying on UHF Radio links anymore. That link between the Clarinda tower and Shenandoah should be microwave. Interestingly, there is microwave sitting there, but it’s not being used.”

Emergency Management Coordinator Marvin McClarnon says a contract has already been awarded for work on the microwave uplink between Shenandoah and Clarinda. The second phase of Hart’s plan includes renting tower space for an additional transmitter site southeast of Essex, as well as upgrading equipment on Coin’s water tower and creating three additional receiver sights throughout the county to assist with portable radio transmission back to the dispatch center. Hart says the infrastructure improvements, along with bringing the entire county onto a single frequency, will allow for portable radio coverage nearly everywhere in the county.

“It’ll support county-wide dispatch,” said Hart. “You will now have a single radio channel for law enforcement and a single radio channel for fire that’s county-wide. No more having to worry about turning a switch or not hearing dispatch because you didn’t flip the switch. Now we would have a solid, county-wide channel.”

In addition to improving portable radio coverage in the county, Hart says all of the equipment he is proposing the county use can easily be upgraded to a digital system in the future.

“Any equipment you buy today will probably be capable of being software-upgraded to become digital,” said Hart. “That means that if we put a new system in the county, that system could be made digital with some software upgrades. The key is the radios. All of your radios are not digital-capable — at least most of them aren’t. The idea would be that as you’re replacing those radios, you purchase digital-capable radios going forward and at a certain point in time, you could convert the system to digital.”

By unanimous vote, the E-911 Board approved the upgrade. Hart estimates the cost of the upgrades to total around $750,000. When it comes to financing the project, Page County Auditor Melissa Wellhausen says the Board of Supervisors will need to decide between taking out a bank loan or voting a bond in the county. She adds that the county has some money earmarked for a project of this nature.

“Currently, we do have in debt service, a little over $100,000 which would be from the first year that we levied for a new communications center,” said Wellhausen. “We levied and that project did not go forward, but the taxpayers were levied for that, so that money is in a restricted fund. It sits there until something new goes through and is either bonded or a bank loan goes through. That would be the choice of the supervisors, and that would be taken care of during the budgeting process.”

Hart says work can now begin on creating a request for proposal to send to potential contractors for the project. He says the RFP is expected to take 30-45 days to complete, and then contractors will be given approximately two months to complete bids. After that, work is expected to take 8-12 months to complete.

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