Can you hear me now?

By Brian McCauley
Miami County Republic – July 5, 2018

Firefighters, law enforcement officers, ambulance crews and other first responders in Miami County all agree that being able to communicate with each other is crucial, but they also realize it’s expensive.

Miami County commissioners have spent portions of several recent meetings discussing options for transitioning some departments from a very high frequency (VHF) radio system to a digital 800 MHz radio system. It’s a move several neighboring counties, including Franklin and Johnson, have already made.

Similar transitions are taking place all across the country as part of a nationwide shift to digital broadcasting, and the need was amplified a few years ago when the Federal Communications Commission mandated narrow banding of the VHF system to make more bandwidth available for other uses.

Paola Fire Chief Andy Martin said the result has been a VHF system that is unreliable at times.

“We’ve had guys calling into dispatch with a cell phone,” Martin said. “It’s a safety issue.”

Currently, Paola, Louisburg and Osawatomie firefighters all communicate with each other using VHF radios, and they can also communicate with Miami County Sheriff’s Office deputies who also utilize a VHF system.

Miami County Emergency Medical Services, though, has already transitioned to 800 MHz radios, and they, along with the Kansas Department of Transportation and other agencies, utilize the Kansas Statewide Interoperable Communication System (KSICS).

The VHF radios can’t communicate with 800 MHz radios, which is an issue first responders continually complain about. It’s become more of an issue now that Franklin County has switched to 800 MHz radios, especially since the county contracts with the Wellsville Fire Department to service the northwest portion of the county.

First step

The local issue is about to get more complex, as the city of Paola and Miami County Fire District No. 1 recently worked together to purchase 800 MHz radios for the Paola and Fontana fire departments.

Paola City Council members, during their June 12 meeting, agreed to spend $85,000 for P25 Kenwood 800 MHz mobile and portable radios, as well as upgrades to the fire department’s pager system. City Manager Jay Wieland said there also will be some additional expense for updating the dispatch console at the Paola Justice Center and possibly adding a repeater to the city’s water tower.

The payment was only a portion of the total cost. Members of the Miami County Fire District No. 1 board, during their June 11 meeting, agreed to spend $75,000 to purchase P25 Kenwood 800 MHz mobile and portable radios to equip the rural fire district’s trucks stored inside the Paola Fire Station and help equip the Paola firefighters who respond to calls both inside the city limits and in county territory.

The fire district board members also agreed to spend $65,000 to buy the same radios for the Fontana Fire Department.

Martin said the new system should be at least three times better than the current setup, and although he expects a few bumps along the way, he can’t wait to put the radios to use.

The department’s VHF equipment is attached to the city’s old water tower near the old North School, and Martin said the reach is only about five square miles. When Martin tested the state’s KSICS system with some borrowed 800 MHz radios earlier this year, he was amazed to discover that the state’s sole tower on 295th Street west of Paola provides good coverage for almost the entire county.

A few dead spots were noticed along the state line northeast of Louisburg, which Statewide Interoperability Coordinator Jason Bryant said is not uncommon because radio frequencies from different states can sometimes interfere with each other. Most of the spots were cleared up when the state brought in a Communication On Wheels (COW), which simulated what the signal would be like if a tower was in the area.

Bryant said the COWs also are useful to improve interagency communication during emergencies, and one recently was deployed to Eureka following the tornado that struck there June 26.

Martin tested 800 MHz radios from multiple different companies before deciding on the Kenwoods, and the purchase was made this month to take advantage of a deal being offered by the vendor. It was noted during the rural fire board meeting that after June 25, the radio prices would have increased by $500 each unit, which could have cost the district an additional $27,000.

Communication concerns

Miami County Fire District No. 1 has its own mill levy to generate property tax revenue, but it also operates under the budget authority of the Miami County Commission. The district contracts with the cities of Paola, Louisburg and Osawatomie to provide fire protection in the rural portions of the county.

Miami County commissioners, during their June 27 meeting, expressed a desire to find a solution that involves all of the fire departments switching to 800 MHZ radios at the same time so there won’t be any gaps in communication.

“Our county needs to be all in or all out,” Commissioner Rob Roberts said.

Osawatomie Fire Chief Brian Love echoed those concerns. He said having one of the departments switch to 800 MHz before the others can join them creates a communication safety issue.

Martin said the bigger safety issue is his firefighters having to use cell phones on fire scenes because they can’t get a signal through the VHF system. He also said his firefighters will keep all of their VHF radios with them on calls so they will still be able to communicate with other departments like Osawatomie.

Love said that sounds good in principle, but he knows the time-consuming nature of maintaining one communication system, let alone two, and he can imagine situations in which the VHF radios would be left behind.

“They may not take them if it looks like a Paola house fire where they won’t need help, but what happens if the roof collapses on them and they need to call for assistance?” Love asked.

Martin said he wouldn’t have made the purchase if he believed it would cut off communication with the other departments or compromise firefighter safety. He said improved safety is the biggest benefit of the transition.

Love said he doesn’t doubt the merits of the new radios, but he wishes the fire departments could all be upgraded together to make the communication transition as seamless as possible. That being said, Love said he doesn’t expect the fire board to buy radios for his department. He is just asking for more time.

“I’m not asking the county to spend money it doesn’t have,” Love said. “I’m just asking them to wait until we can do it together.”

Funding concerns

Miami County Fire District No. 1 Board President Charlie Brand said the original plan was to purchase the radios for all of the cities, and Martin said he worked with the other departments during the testing phase to see if 800 MHZ radios would work for them too.

Brand said the district even had a quote for a five-year loan with a good interest rate, but the plans were derailed during a recent budget meeting with the county commissioners.

Brand said the district’s board members were tasked by commissioners last year to start some long-term planning. The board came up with a 20-year plan for equipment replacement and maintenance, and calculated that the district would need about $360,000 a year to replace vehicles, turnout gear, radios and other equipment.

That total was reflected in the fire board’s budget proposal this year that requested an increase of about two mills from a levy of a little less than three mills to a levy of a little more than five mills. The commissioners said they weren’t ready to approve that type of tax increase.

Brand said the plan was withdrawn, and the district moved forward with purchasing the radios for Paola and Fontana, which it already had authority to do in this year’s budget.

The commissioners shifted their focus to working on a plan to upgrade radios for the other fire departments, but there was question as to whether or not the cities of Osawatomie or Louisburg could contribute their share of the funds.

Osawatomie City Manager Don Cawby said coming up with funding for the radios may not be easy. The city has created a public safety fund that may get an influx of revenue if residents approve a proposed quarter-cent sales tax in the August primary election, but Cawby said that fund is slated to pay for the city’s new fire truck, as well a portion of the city’s new police software.

“After four years, we should be able to free up some funding,” Cawby said. “However, that may be too long. So, from our perspective, it will likely have to come at the cost of other things in the budget until that can happen.”

The first step, he said, will be determining what the cost actually will be to purchase what the city needs.

“I’ve heard so many numbers and needs thrown out there, it didn’t seem to me that this was even a major issue until a couple of weeks ago,” Cawby said.

Louisburg City Administrator Nathan Law said the city has been researching the radios ever since Paola started making the push to purchase them, but there is not yet a fund set up to provide revenue.

“It would have to come out of the general fund,” Law said.

He added that he is working quickly to try and present something to the Louisburg City Council for the 2019 budget, but they are already at the draft review process in the budget timeline. City budgets must be approved and sent to the state in August.

Paola City Manager Jay Wieland said the city’s portion of the recent radio purchase was funded by the quarter-cent sales tax that voters renewed last June to continue to support the Paola Fire Department. The tax was initially approved in 2007 to fund the construction of a new fire station and pay for necessary equipment.

Interoperability

In addition to working to get the fire departments on the same system, county commissioners also have been looking at options for the Miami County Sheriff’s Office.

That system, the commissioners have learned, requires different equipment, as deputies have expressed a need not only to be able to communicate outside at a scene, but also in more confined locations, such as the basement of a home.

Undersheriff Wayne Minckley recently proposed two options quoted by Motorola to the county commissioners during a study session. The first option would upgrade the county’s VHF system to a five-site ASR system with P25 800 MHz radios linked to the state KSICS system at a cost of about $2.5 million.

The second option would upgrade the county’s VHF system to an eight-site ASR standalone system with P25 800 MHz radios at a cost of about $4 million.

Minckley said both proposals would include equipment upgrades for not only the sheriff’s office, but also the county road and bridge department, as well as the city police departments of Paola, Louisburg and Osawatomie.

No official decision was made at the meeting, but Miami County Administrator Shane Krull did point out that Miami County is surrounded by counties that have already moved to 800 MHz radios.

“That’s rapidly leaving the Miami County Sheriff’s Office on an island,” Krull said.

Bryant said the issues facing Miami County are not unique, and he deals with them frequently in his role as statewide interoperability coordinator. In fact, he’s currently working with four other counties considering radio upgrades.

Bryant said possible funding options include grants and sales taxes, but he realizes those aren’t options for all municipalities.

“Some can’t do it,” he conceded.

That being said, many municipalities have already made the switch. Bryant said more than 60 percent of all public safety departments in the state of Kansas are now using an 800 MHz system, and he expects that number to continue to grow.

For Wieland, the decision to upgrade Paola’s radio system was a simple one.

“I don’t want to put a firefighter in a situation where they can’t communicate,” he said.

 

Posted by Gwen Dorr Romine, KSFFA Webmaster
http://www.ksffa.com
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