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New radio system helps improve emergency responses

Posted: May 6, 2012 - 12:02am  |  Updated: May 7, 2012 - 8:58am
A Columbia County deputy uses the radio on his shoulder at the scene of an accident on Columbia Road at North Old Belair Road. The sheriff's office is getting a new radio system.  Photo by Jim Blaylock
Photo by Jim Blaylock
A Columbia County deputy uses the radio on his shoulder at the scene of an accident on Columbia Road at North Old Belair Road. The sheriff's office is getting a new radio system.

Twitter @ColumbiaCounty

Columbia County’s sheriff says despite the price tag, a sophisticated new radio system will make his office and others more efficient and responsive for years to come.

Sheriff Clay Whittle said the 800 megahertz phase II trunked radio system from Motorola, which commissioners recently approved at a $7 million price tag, will greatly improve the communications capabilities of the sheriff’s office.

The new system upgrades to digital technology, replacing the antiquated VHF system currently used by deputies and other emergency responders.

“Years ago, the radio spectrum had a wide spread between frequencies,” Whittle explained. “It worked well, because VHF could penetrate long distances. Then, as the radio frequencies became crowded over the years, they had to start narrowing the bandwidth.”

The latest Federal Communications Commission requirements limit the separation between radio channels to 12.5 megahertz. Once, Whittle said, the separation was at least four times that.

Currently, he said, the sheriff’s office has to share a frequency with the Athens-Clark County Police Department.

“It creates bleed-over and interference,” Whittle said. “As they narrowband these radios, it creates more interference and shortens the distance these radios can work.”

Radio coverage in the county currently is limited to about 70 percent, Whittle said. With the new system, that coverage improves to 98 percent.

For car radios, the current system is sufficient because they are powered with more than 40 watts. Portable radios use no more than 5 watts.

“That’s why you’ll sometimes see deputies holding their radios up in the air like the Statue of Liberty holding up the torch,” he said. “They’re trying to get a signal.”

The Motorola system, which is scheduled to go live in October, also allows multiple agencies to use it.

“Police needs to be able to talk to fire, to talk to EMS, to talk to water (utility), to talk to roads and bridges (department), to talk to other law enforcement agencies that we can’t do today,” Whittle said. “It’s almost absurd when you think about it.”

Whittle said he started 10 years ago trying to purchase a new radio system, but the $12 million price tag was too much for other agencies.

But when the county won a $13.5 million federal stimulus grant in 2010 to build a broadband network, an opportunity to improve the radio network presented itself, Whittle said.

Whittle said he offered the county the use of 1-percent sales tax funds set aside for emergency radio improvements to build two more communications towers, for seven in all.

And since the system will be linked to a broadband network, it will allow for data sending, such as texts, reports and photos.

For example, a deputy on patrol might come across a tree across a road. He could take a photo and send it to the roads and bridges department, so they know what to expect before sending a unit to clear the debris.

“It was obvious to everyone it would be a huge move forward,” Whittle said. “It helps the broadband system by having two additional towers and helps us and all county departments to improve coverage for those portable radios.”

COST BREAKDOWN

Network: $5,345,106

Phase II improvements: $143,847

Phase II interoperability: $302,400

Two multiband APX 7500 mobile radios with O5 control head: $14,596

Six multiband APX 7500 mobile radios with O3 control head: $46,255

269 basic model APX 6000 portable radios: $1,217,924

51 limited model APX 6000 portable radios: $243,147

31 encrypted limited model APX 6000 portable radios: $159,575

14 encrypted full model APX 7000 portable radios: $84,840

Eight dispatch console stations: $980,424

10 multiple gang chargers: $10,800

Seven motorcycle kits: $20,769

Gross total: $8,420,485

Volume discount: $1,469,735

Net total: $6,960,750

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Comments (5)

Riverman1

Things Like This Are Necessary, But...

I suppose things like this are necessary, but let's hope they can at least sell the old one somewhere. It should help defer the cost.

nunyax

Wow, that's a lot of money...

269 Motorola APX 6000 dual-band portables for $1.2 million, about $4,500 each. If they were single-band XTS 2500s for about $1,300 each the total would have come to about $350,000. Even if that "volume discount" was for all of those portables, was it really necessary to have that many of the expensive APX radios?

Iresqu

I understand the sheriff

I understand the sheriff wanted the best for his deputies but.... I believe the coverage issue could have been dealt with a little cheaper. They had to ADD two additional towers for the new system which means additional repeaters, system controllers, etc. Why not add the two towers with voting receivers and issue radios with public safety mics that have antennas attached to the mic and not the radio? That brings the signal out above the deputies body, which attenuates the signal, and keeps their hands free.
Vehicular repeaters could be used as well. The deputy has a portable radio that "talks" to his vehicle radio which in turn re-broadcasts his signal at a higher power level. G.S.P. has been using vehicular repeaters for years.

The sheriffs concern for interoperability is an easy fix.... every county agency in his county uses VHF. The radios can be programmed for all agencies they need, they currently have the capability to talk with Harlem P.D., Grovetown D.P.S., Martinez F.D., Gold Cross E.M.S., etc., at the moment. The radio tech for the county only needs to do some mouse clicks in the radio programming software is all.

All the whiz bang gee whiz technology is nice to have but public officials need to be good stewards of the taxpayers money.

BobbyLee461

Sheriff wrong on this one

Either Sheriff Whittle was misquoted in this article or he doesn't know what he is talking about when trying to justify the expenditure of $7 million for the new 800 MHz P25 Phase II Digital Radio System. The Sheriff was quoted in the article as saying FCC "requirements limit the separation between radio channels to 12.5 megahertz. Once, Whittle said, the separation was at least four times that." First of all the channel (frequency spacing) under narrow band is 12.5 kilohertz, not megahertz as mentioned in the article, and the separation in VHF under wide band was twice that of narrowband, not four times as mentioned in the article. Something else mentioned here is the Sheriff seemed to quick to point out that narrowing the bandwidth in VHF has reduced the performance of the radios, but it is not mentioned in the article the 800 MHz frequency spectrum plan only allows for the use of narrowband spaced frequencies. Also, the Sheriff is quoted as saying, "the sheriff's office has to share a frequency with Athens-Clark County Police Department. It creates bleed-over and interference", but the fact is the Athens-Clarke County Police Department has been operating on a Motorola 800 MHz analog trunked radio system for many years and very seldom, if ever, uses VHF unless there is a problem with their 800 MHz System. Also, researching radio frequencies on the Radio Reference database does not show any common frequencies in use between Athens-Clarke County and Columbia County, so this makes me wonder where this "interference and bleed-over" that the Sheriff mentions is coming from. Sheriff Whittle also mentions, "For car radios, the current system is sufficient because they are powered with more than 40 watts. Portable radios use no more than five watts." Again, not a very good comparison because in a VHF analog system a car radio can have up to 100 watts of output power where an 800 MHz car radio cannot go over 35 watts output. A VHF portable radio can have up to 5 watts of output power compared to a maximum of 3 watts of output power on an 800 MHz portable radio, thus the need for more tower sites in 800 MHz than in VHF.

Sheriff Whittle's comparison of a VHF analog conventional two-way radio system to an 800 MHz P25 digital trunked radio system is like comparing apples to oranges when trying to describe the difference in functionality, performance and cost of radio systems verses color, size and taste between two different fruits. Columbia County commissioners recently approved to spend $7 million dollars to build out this new 800 MHz radio system when they could probably have upgraded the VHF System for less than $2 million, like other counties in Georgia have done or are doing, but I bet no one in the Sheriff's Office looked at this as an option. Unfortunately, Columbia County will be paying out the nose for this new 800 MHz for years to come because along with the big purchase price will be extremely high annual reoccurring costs to maintain the infrastructure and individual radios. A multi-site radio system requires expensive links like T1 or microwave hops to link the sites together and monthly reoccurring costs to link these sites together are extremely expensive. Digital radios are less forgiving than analog and they require more retuning in order for the radios to maintain an acceptable level of output power and audio quality, plus digital radio quality is extremely poor in high noise environments regardless of the type of vocoder in the radio and what the vendors tell you. If you don't believe me ask some of the employees in fire departments, police departments, sheriff's offices, EMS agencies, etc. throughout the State who have been using 800 MHz P25 digital systems for the past five years or so. Oh, and when you ask this question make sure it is directed to the line personnel with boots on the ground every day, not the Sheriff, Chief or other command staff members.

Hopefully, Columbia County will be pleased with their decision to move to 800 MHz P25 Phase II, but my guess is it will not provide the 98 percent coverage they were promised and they will spend much more money on this system than originally thought.

BobbyLee461

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