County officials have been busy in recent months responding to an unfunded federal mandate intended to quadruple the availability of communications channels available for public safety operations by 2013 by decreasing the coverage area, or bandwidth, of each tower.
Earlier this month, the Platte County Public Safety Communications Task Force unanimously recommended that the county move forward with the installation of a new digital radio system instead of upgrading existing infrastructure to comply with the regulations.
The 700/800 megahertz P-25 trunked network would replace the county’s current Very High Frequency (VHF) system with a digital portable radio network that links easily with those of neighboring public safety organizations and government agencies. P-25 is short for “Project 25,” a movement by the Telecommunications Industry Association and the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials encouraging standardization of communications equipment for cross-compatibility among jurisdictions.
While the Federal Communication Commission’s narrower-bandwidth requirements were originally estimated to pose a cost to county taxpayers of roughly $13 million, a March 14 report by Tusa Consulting Services, a public safety radio communication consulting service hired by the county to analyze requirements, equipment and options in the face of the upcoming mandate, anticipates a cost closer to $8.8 million for the P-25 radio network.
Platte County First District Commissioner Kathy Dusenbery warned however, that it is a bit early in the game to be trying to pin down final numbers.
“Look how far we’ve gotten that number down (from) that original $13 million that was floating around,” said Dusenbery. “Tusa looked at all the areas where we need to put up towers and guess what, we don’t need to build towers now because in the study, we have plenty of towers that are already up in the county that we can negotiate with to put our antennas up. My point is that there is no hard number yet and we are working as hard as we can to keep bringing our numbers down in the most cost-effective way that we can.”
That Platte County can, according to the Tusa report, tap in to and use Kansas City’s existing switch knocks an immediate $2 million off the original price tag too. For additional cost savings, the new system will also be able to piggyback off other equipment in neighboring jurisdictions, such as Leavenworth, as well.
With the new system, eight digital simulcast sites would replace the county’s two current towers – a north tower near north of Tracy near Highway 371 and a south tower at Riss Lake in Parkville. Questionnaires and interviews of law enforcement and other county public safety officials early in the Tusa study revealed several concerns with the current communications system including unreliable communications coverage stemming from interference and lack of coverage, lack of ability to encrypt communications for safety reasons and lack of support for numerous users at one time.
Joseph King who, as director of the communications center at the Platte County Sheriff’s department, dispatches for 23 jurisdictions including five fire and 12 police departments, said that the new system will address those issues and would also ensure emergency workers that their messages were actually making it in to the communications center.
“If something is going on in Parkville and I have a county officer in Weatherby Lake, they may not be able to get their communication through because of what’s going on in Parkville,” King explained. “With the (new) trunk system, just because one group is talking it does not prevent another group from calling in.”
The new system, he said, has a tone that lets users know when it is clear to talk and confirms that the message has gone through. It also assigns a digital code to each user.
“If somebody keys the radio, even if they don’t say anything, we know who it is,” said King. “Our current system does not have that capability.”
“I know how bad it is when I can’t get through on a radio. At times that can make you nervous. That’s not the way you hope the system works,” he said.
The FCC, in its online article, Tech Topic 16: Narrow Banding Public Safety Communication Channels, explains that the narrowbanding rule “implies mandatory narrow banding implementation by not allowing any new licenses for devices and equipment with 25 kHz wide channels after January 1, 2011. By the end of 2012, all legacy communications systems below 512 Mhz should convert to narrowband operation.”
Tusa reports that as demand increased, the FCC established a waiting list for channels but that, in reality, those who did have the channels were quite reticent to give them up so wait-listers were unlikely to get a channel in the long run. The mandate is a move toward efficiency then, with a goal of putting recent technological improvements to use by slimming wide, outdated, analog channels down to their sleeker, digital equivalents with the same or better levels of clarity and quality.
The Tech Topic report states that most public service radio systems operate at 512 megahertz with (the significantly smaller) 25 kilohertz voice channels. Higher bandwidths, such as those in the 700 and 800 MHz range, were allocated more efficiently in the first place, according to the report, and are not included in the mandate. Private land mobile radio users will also be required to reduce voice channels from the current 25 kHz-wide transmissions down first to 12.5 kHz by January 1, 2013 and then to 6.25 kHz in January of 2018.
“Using narrowband channels will ensure that public safety communications users take advantage of more efficient technology and, by reducing channel width, will allow additional channels to be assigned,” reads the Tech Topic report. “In this regard, narrowband improves spectrum efficiency for public safety communications and it helps to some degree with interoperability in the near future.”
The Tusa report indicates that the events of September 11, 2001 highlighted the need for interoperability, or cross-compatibility, in public service communications equipment.
“Heightened homeland security needs pressed the federal government to convert its many security and military radio networks to secure digital technologies. APCO Project-25 was quickly adopted as the technology to be used,” reads the report.
Joseph King agreed that interoperability will be an important feature of the new system.
“Interoperability is a very key function,” he said. “People expect us from one agency to another responding to the same event to be able to talk frequently. We found very quickly after September 11 that that’s not what’s been built. Everybody’s kind of doing their own thing.”