Saturday, February 23, 2013
Franklin County takes next step in 911 system upgrade
Officials agree that the communications system needs to be improved, but expanding coverage and related equipment could cost between $14.7 million and $26.1 million.
Photos by Rebecca Barnett | The Roanoke Times
Communications Officer Kristina Love of Rocky Mount takes calls at the Franklin County 911 call center on Thursday afternoon.
Communications Officer Kimberly Alls of Wirtz talks with Franklin County Deputy Travis Whittaker at the 911 call center. The Franklin County Board of Supervisors is working toward upgrading the system.
No one whistled at the prices quoted, but there seemed to be some puckering up.
No one disagreed that Franklin County's spotty system of public safety radio communications needs a major upgrade.
According to a consultant's analysis, the current system provides adequate coverage to only about 60 percent of the county, a situation considered potentially life-threatening for both first responders and county residents.
And no one sounded surprised that establishing reliable portable radio coverage across the rural county's 712 square miles of mountains, hollows, valleys and lakes would be expensive.
But the estimated costs of two alternative remedies proposed this week by Engineering Associates, a Georgia-based firm of communications engineers, clearly rattled members of the Franklin County Board of Supervisors.
"You're talking about a substantial amount of money," said Supervisor Bob Camicia. "Even the school system doesn't ask for this kind of money."
Mike McGannon, Engineering Associates' manager of wireless systems consulting, shared details Tuesday from the firm's initial assessment of the county's communications system. The county hired the company in September and it evaluated the current system in the months that followed. This first phase of Engineering Associates' work cost the county $35,640.
One remedy outlined by McGannon, who was senior manager for wireless services during the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, had projected costs of about $14.7 million. The other had estimated costs of about $26.1 million. The latter required the location of more communication towers but the $14.7 million alternative actually promised the potential for slightly better coverage.
The county has an annual budget of $121 million in the current fiscal year.
The actual costs for the radio upgrade will vary according to which frequencies the county will be able to license, McGannon said, because the system will be designed around the frequencies.
Camicia wondered aloud whether public safety stakeholders interviewed by Engineering Associates were pushing for what he described alternately as "platinum-plated" or "gold-plated" systems. It's human nature, Camicia suggested, for users to want to buy the best.
"We really did not gold-plate this," McGannon said, adding, "fundamental coverage is not gold-plated."
The goal is to provide reliable portable radio coverage throughout the county, whether the person with the radio is outside, in a vehicle or inside a building, he said.
Daryl Hatcher, the county's director of public safety, said reliable coverage can be crucial in emergency situations. He said a sheriff's deputy in a perilous position might struggle to summon backup and other first responders might be unable to communicate about the resources needed at the scene of a fire or medical emergency.
Hatcher said areas in the county where portable radio coverage is especially spotty include Endicott, Callaway, Snow Creek, Coopers Cove and the community of Naff.
Both proposals from Engineering Associates factored in about $3.6 million for outfitting a new 911 dispatch center. McGannon said the existing facility, housed within the sheriff's office on Court Street, will likely be too small to accommodate equipment tied to a new system.
Supervisor Ronnie Thompson asked Engineering Associates to examine more closely options that might not require a new dispatch center.
Supervisor Bobby Thompson agreed about the need for a more reliable communications system but expressed concerns about the county shouldering the related expense.
He said Franklin County wants to ensure the safety of first responders, but added that "we have to worry about how we get there."
Ultimately, supervisors agreed that Engineering Associates should proceed to the next step of its work on the project. The second phase, which will cost the county $41,040, will focus on investigating what frequencies are available, and identifying and acquiring sites for communications towers.
That work is expected to take about two years.
McGannon said towers erected by the county could generate revenue if wireless providers seek to install equipment on the structures.
Engineering Associates will apply for frequencies to the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials. That organization's spectrum management arm, AFC, is a Federal Communications Commission certified public safety coordinator.
Like McGannon, Hatcher said the design for an upgraded system will hinge on which frequencies are available.
"Trying to design a system without frequencies is kind of like building a house from the roof down," Hatcher said.