April 27, 2007

County Upgrades Response System

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For the last seven years, Tompkins County has been working to upgrade the communication system that emergency responders use to talk to each other. As the system nears completion, the question that remains is who will actually pay for the radios that each agency will need for its personnel, in their vehicles, and down at the station. Some agencies, like volunteer fire departments, are already running on tight budgets and would be hard pressed to purchase the necessary equipment.
Tompkins County Director of Emergency Response Lee Shurtleff submitted a proposal late last week that answers the question. According to a statement later released by the county a few days later, it appears that Shurtleff’s plan will be accepted by the Public Safety Committee.
The new system will rely on 10 transmission towers that use 800 megahertz radio frequencies and will be interoperable, meaning that the different agencies using the system will be able to share information and coordinate their response in an emergency. When in operation, the system is guaranteed to cover 94 percent of the counties geographic area and have a 95 percent success rate in completing radio calls. It will replace the current system which the county says was amassed in the mid-1970s but includes some equipment that dates back to the 1950s.
In his plan, Shurtleff recommends using the $2 million project balance in the Communications Capital Project Account to purchase a basic level of equipment for the local fire, police and medical services. This money will be supplemented by $1 million in federal earmarks secured by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-24th) and former Representative Sherwood Boehlert and another $80,000 obtained by State Senator James Seward. Beyond that, the agencies will be responsible for personnel pagers and other equipment with an expected cost exceeding $800,000. However, Shurtleff says that the basic equipment provided by his plan will be enough for the new system to operate with.
“Shurtleff said [the plan] would ensure the system would immediately operate at a functional, equitable and effective level when it goes on line,” said the county in its statement. “Equipment would be standardized and under tight system control, eliminating current fragmentation and agencies would be able to operate and communicate effectively with each other from day one, achieving federal interoperability standards.”
For Cornell, the funding is not the biggest issue, but rather the question of how the radio will operate inside Cornell’s buildings. Joseph Lalley, director of operations support, explained that radio frequency used by the new system — 800 MHz — is near the frequency that cell phones operate at. This may be fine for outdoor use such as squad cars out on the road, but just like cell phones, the system’s radios may have problems communicating as they are brought further inside some of the buildings on campus. Because of this, Lalley is not yet sure how the new system will affect Cornell.
“We’re now moving judiciously with prudent steps,” said Lalley.
Currently Cornell plans to purchase mobile radios for police and emergency vehicles and portable radio units for key personnel. They will also buy a cross-connect console which will allow Cornell’s current VHF (very high frequency) system to interact with the new system. Lalley says that Cornell will collaborate with the county to purchase this equipment in bulk as the system nears completion.
“The strategy is — we’ll be able to talk to emergency responders no matter what,” said Lalley.
Whether Cornell makes further changes to use the 800 MHz system will depend on the results of a building penetration study to be performed next week.
According to Alec Johnson ’08, the Director of Cornell University Emergency Medical Service (CUEMS), the new system will provide better coverage and offer more channels to better divide up radio traffic. CUEMS will be receiving a radio for the new system from Cornell, but will also keep its VHF system to communicate with the Cornell police.
Even with the proposal, some questions about the systems implementation still remain, such as whether the privately owned Bangs Ambulance Service can receive equipment purchased by public funds. The Public Safety Committee hopes to resolve these questions before it makes its final recommendation next month.