Going Digital Will Be Costly For Public Safety Agencies

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With a federal requirement that public safety agencies switch to digital communication by 2020, Athens County is trying to figure out how best to accomplish it.

Whatever’s decided will be costly, according County 911 Director Dan Pfeiffer.

The decision is whether the county should develop its own digital system — which Pfeiffer said could cost into the millions of dollars — or to fully become part of the state’s Multi-Agency Radio Communication System (MARCS), which also will be costly.

“Which one is better, which one is more economical, and which one is better for the county in the long run?” Pfeiffer said of the basic questions that must be answered.

Last week, Pfeiffer received permission from the county commissioner to begin discussion with MARCS to further explore the county’s options. The county has a bargaining chip — it has radio towers that MARCS could use (MARCS already has equipment one county tower).

The 911 Center is using some MARCS equipment, since Athens County Emergency Medical Service and the Athens County Sheriff’s Office use MARCS.

If the county went to its own digital system, Pfeiffer estimated it would cost the 911 Center more than $600,000 just for its fire department communication system. Similar costs would be faced for the EMS and law enforcement systems if the county no longer used MARCS.

Individual law enforcement and fire agencies also are going to face costs because of the need to switch from analogue to the more expensive digital equipment. By way of comparison, an analogue handheld radio costs about $500, while the digital version costs between $1,200 and $1,500, Pfeiffer said.

“It could be devastating if we don’t do some preplanning,” said Craig Churchheus, chief of the Waterloo Twp. Volunteer Fire Department. “The smaller departments that run on a smaller budget need to start planning now.”

Although hard numbers aren’t available, Churchheus estimated it could cost his department $50,000 to $60,000 to replace all its portable radios, truck radios and pagers with digital equipment. The department’s annual budget is about $28,000.

Churchheus said that, as radios need replacing, equipment that can operate as both analogue and digital will be purchased. However, he’s hoping for grant assistance. The Waterloo department is part of a Community Development Block Grant neighborhood revitalization grant the county is seeking for New Marshfield.

Tim Hastings, chief of the Richland Area Volunteer Fire Department, knows his department also will be facing some costs.

“It’s going to have a pretty good impact on us,” Hastings said — meaning that the impact would be significant.

Hastings said the department hopes to obtain a firefighter grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“If we don’t get a grant, it’s going to have to be worked into our budgets,” Hastings said.

Pfeiffer said the State Fire Marshal’s Office will be offering grants to assist fire departments, but his understanding is that the money that will fund the program is only a fraction of what will be needed statewide.

Pfeiffer said Homeland Security is a potential source of funding for the switch to digital, but that would require Athens County to partner with another county.

During discussion with Pfeiffer at last week’s commissioners’ meeting, Commissioner Charlie Adkins raised the question of whether the switch to digital equipment should viewed as a countywide problem that could be addressed with a short-term levy.

“Is it something we need to look at and explore?” Adkins asked.

Commissioner Chris Chmiel asked why the Federal Communications Commission is requiring the move to digital.

“Your audio quality is much better with digital,” Pfeiffer responded.

Athens County 911 is in the process of doing a countywide inventory of fire department radio equipment. The commissioners asked Pfeiffer to expand that to include EMS and law enforcement radios.

The city of Athens has already taken steps to acquire digital equipment for its police and fire departments.

Athens Police Chief Tom Pyle said that, as part of his department’s switch to MARCS, approval was given by City Council to use a total of $44,000 from the Law Enforcement Trust Fund and Mandatory Drug Fine Fund to buy equipment.

Athens Service-Safety Director Paula Horan Moseley said the fire department was able to purchase portable radios, mobile radios and other equipment for MARCS through a $149,600 FEMA Firefighters Assistance Grant, with the city contributing 10 percent of that amount.

Pfeiffer said the Athens Fire Department can’t use MARCS until the 911 Center switches its equipment from 800 megahertz to the newer 700MHz. Pfeiffer said the change must be made by next March, but will happen sooner. It’s not an issue for the police department, which is already using MARCS, because the department does its own dispatching.

MARCS also has a monthly service fee. Pyle said the annual cost for the police department, for example, will be $7,500. Pfeiffer said there has been some talk on the state level of eliminating the fee.