Emergency radio revamp

Jeff Guy
Newton Kansan – May 6, 2014

The Harvey County Communications Center is in the process of updating its emergency radio system and replacing an analog system that has become unsafe for emergency response workers. There are “dead spaces” in the county where emergency response workers cannot communicate.

The communications center is looking at different radio towers in the Newton, Hesston and Burrton areas hoping to add signals in converting the county’s emergency radio system from VHF narrowband to an 800 MHZ system.

However, the communications center is only in the early phases of looking and talking to tower owners. So far, no agreements have been made, Harvey County Communications Director Courtney Becker said.

Harvey County plans to connect to the state system, which is on 800 MHZ. The Kansas Dept. of Transportation (KDOT) has towers in the surrounding counties, which send signals to the fringes of Harvey County, but there are no KDOT towers within Harvey County. There is no state coverage from north of U.S. 50 to west of I-135, said Don Gruver, assistant communications director for the county.

The cost of converting infrastructure to the 800 MHZ system is estimated at $3.2 million and the county and communications center want to use existing towers, rather than building a new one.

“We want to join into their system, using the brain of their system and just add sites,” Becker said. “We don’t want to put towers up if we don’t need to.”

Harvey County last put up a tower in 2006 at Camp Hawk for $100,000. There is a substantial ongoing cost to maintaining a tower, Becker said.

It will cost around $1.5 million to provide 800 MHZ radios for all emergency responders in the county, Becker said. The cost would be offset by an AFG (Assistance to Firefighters grant) the county has applied for. In around September, the county will learn if the grant was approved.

“It would cover pretty much half the cost of radios,” said Jim VanSchaick, the Halstead fire chief who wrote the grant application. “That would be a huge benefit to the community.”

The grant would buy radios for all the fire departments in Harvey County, as well as in Moundridge in McPherson County and Peabody in Marion County, VanShaick said.

Scheduled to be completed in 2015, the conversion to the 800 MHZ system cannot happen soon enough for Becker and emergency responders. “Dead spots” on the radios have increased throughout the county since it switched to a narrowband system in May of 2012.

The FCC mandated that jurisdictions go to a narrowband system by January 1, 2013 as a means of getting more channels on less bandwith. Gruver said the FCC made the ruling primarily to make more channels available in the metropolitan areas and reduce overcrowding in frequencies.

Becker said, “We were hearing things like we might lose 10 or 15 percent of coverage. We lost more. We lost 30 or 40 percent of coverage.”

The radio system under narrowband has “unpredictable performance,” Becker said. Sunny or windy days can affect the system.

“Every single piece of the radio network is getting gaps,” Becker said. “Every little issue is amplified in a narrow band system. We’re in a tough spot and responders need to have better coverage for their safety.”

Newton Fire Chief Mark Willis said he is passionate about the need to change to a safer system.

The current system, he said, could be dangerous to a police officer by himself or a firefighter who has fallen through a floor at a house fire.

“The status of the system now is unsafe and it’s variable from day to day,” he said. “It can be adversely affected by atmospheric conditions. It is truly a safety issue.”

With the narrowband system, Willis could be at the fire station, trying to talk to the deputy chief down the hall by radio and get static. Recently, while standing in his home living room, Willis was talking by radio to an emergency responder in Bonner Springs and “it sounded like I was standing right next to him,” he said.

Becker said under the 800 MHZ system, portable radios should get 95 percent coverage in buildings and residences. Only places in the densely populated eastern river valley of Harvey County might lack coverage.

“All the problems created with narrow band won’t exist in the 800 system.”

Gwen Romine, KSFFA Webmaster