Clear, efficient bi-county radio system would come at a price
by Tim Lockette
Volunteer fire Chief Van Roberts has had the chance to work with one of the most sophisticated communications systems money can buy — radios that cost $4,000 each to replace, but in a pinch, could put the tiny Quad Cities Fire Department in contact with every first responder from Piedmont to Sylacauga.

He likes his old radio better.

“We get better coverage with it,” said Roberts, whose fire district covers the Choccolocco area. “We’re looking at a $500 radio, and it talks better.”

George Grabryan wouldn’t mind being in Roberts’ shoes. As emergency management director of Lauderdale County, he monitors multiple radio systems to keep track of cops and firefighters in the Florence area. In a disaster, he said, a single system like the one in Calhoun County would be better — for any community that can afford it.

“How do you put a price on the safety of your citizens?” he said.

That’s a question that’s rapidly coming to the fore in Calhoun and Talladega counties, where local officials are trying to come to grips with the ongoing cost of the 800 megahertz trunked radio system that links first responders in both counties.

The radios have been around since the late 1990s, a gift from the federal government. But like a great cell phone with a pricey data plan, they come with a recurring cost. According to the Alabama Regional Communication System, which now manages the radios and the towers and computer equipment to control them, basic operation of the system costs more than $800,000 a year. ARCS officials hope to replace each of the 3,100 radios roughly every nine years, and at $4,000 per radio, that adds up to $1.5 million per year. There’s also the $876,000 the system expects to spend annually over the next five years to upgrade other equipment — money that would, in later years, go to maintenance of the area’s storm warning sirens — and hundreds of thousands more to enter into an agreement to make future updates to the system a regular procedure. Taken together, the system’s needs add up to about $4.2 million per year, according to ARCS figures.

Residents of both counties soon may be asked, for the first time, whether they want to pay that bill. Earlier this month, local officials announced an effort to pass a 3.5 mill property tax, enough to generate $4 million for the radio system — with $2.5 million left over to put more police officers in schools and $700,000 on other public safety needs.

Dubbed the School Safety Act, the proposal actually consists of two local constitutional amendments, which would allow voters to decide the matter in each county. If the property tax increase passed, it would boost the annual property tax on a $100,000 house, for example, by $35 per year.

Advocates of the measure acknowledged it’s a hard thing to sell to voters who’ve never seen the radios in operation. Some say both counties will face increased costs for radios no matter what they do.

“As time goes by, it becomes more costly to effect repairs to the system,” he said. “Eventually we’ll reach the time when this equipment is no longer supported.”

Change not cheap

Madison County, Alabama’s capital for all things high-tech, didn’t roll out its own 800 MHz radio system until last year. Ernie Blair, CEO of the county’s 911 system, said it’s one of the best things Huntsville-area emergency agencies could have done.

“If you squirt water, arrest people or tend wounds in Madison County, you’re on this system,” he said.

Blair sold county officials on the system after realizing that the area’s other radio systems were growing obsolete and needed to be replaced anyway. The change wasn’t cheap: the county needed to spend $12 million on antennas and other infrastructure, while the emergency departments had to buy their own radios, at $1,200 to $5,000 each.

After debating how to pay for it, county officials decided to increase the 911 charge the county adds to land-line phones. It cost Madison County residents about a dollar a month, Blair said.

Blair said he’s had rave reviews from once-skeptical first-responders, and exactly six calls from residents complaining about their phone bills going up.

“Four of them changed their minds after I explained to them they were getting something for their money,” he said.

The whole process, from the first pitch to deployment of the radios, took seven years.

The switch to 800 MHz puts Huntsville in league with the state’s other major metro areas, such as Mobile and Birmingham, he said.

Jumping in line

Blair sees Calhoun and Talladega counties as far ahead of the Huntsville area, having had years to smooth out the problems in their system.

But by jumping in line ahead of most counties, Calhoun and Talladega counties never had that crucial conversation about how to pay for the system.

They didn’t have to. The federal government introduced the system in the 1990s, to help police and firefighters be ready in case of a mishap at Anniston Army Depot, where the Army stockpiled chemical weapons for decades.

At the time, first responders — including volunteer firefighters, according to Anniston Star accounts from the time — were eager to take up the offer, citing coverage gaps and poor reception with their hodgepodge of radios.

For years, the 800 MHz system was the envy of other counties, which struggled to make the switch at their own expense.

When the Army burned the last chemical weapons in an incinerator in 2011, the threat of a chemical mishap went away, and so did the money. Last year, local officials set up the Alabama Regional Communication System to maintain the system. ARCS currently funds its operations by charging public safety agencies a fee to use the radios — $22.50 per radio per month on 3,100 radios. The system brings in $837,000 a year, officials say.

But it’s a burden on local agencies, Jenkins said, and it covers only the system’s basic operating expenses, not needed upgrades and replacements to keep the system running.

Volunteer opposition

Emergency officials acknowledge it’s hard to explain what makes the trunked radio system more than just a fancy walkie-talkie. As with a modern smartphone, the most significant part of the trunked radio is the part you don’t see — that is, the network that supports it.

Before trunked radios, it was already possible for dispatchers to monitor and talk to more than one agency, simply by monitoring more than one frequency. And it was possible for some agencies to select common radio frequencies to talk to each other. But in an emergency, any single shared frequency could easily be overloaded with chatter.

The 800 MHz radios use trunking, a method of bundling signals, to manage that traffic better. The result is that everybody gets to hear the people they need to hear, even in a major emergency.

“Instead of telling people to switch to a new frequency, I can send them a signal that switches the frequency for them,” Blair said.

Local officials say that with the network of repeaters set up across Calhoun and Talladega counties, the system offers coverage to 95 percent of both counties, compared to the dead spots that plagued earlier systems.

Volunteer firefighters have been the toughest audience for the 800 MHz pitch. According to Jenkins, no Talladega County volunteer fire departments are on the system, and some Calhoun County departments have also declined it. The maintenance charge, he said, was one reason the volunteer departments backed out.

Roberts, the Quad Cities chief, said there are other reasons. The signal on the 800 MHz radio, he said, was always faint in Choccolocco, and the system doesn’t always reach inside buildings — a problem for firefighters, who do some of their work in burning structures.

A handful of studies, conducted by fire chiefs and other officials, seem to support the claim about signal penetration. Blair, of Madison County, said many of those studies reflect the 800 MHz system as it operated 10 years ago. Most of those problems have been cleared up by now.

“Volunteer firefighters have always been the most resistant to this system,” he said. He said the resistance was partly because of their lack of resources and partly because they’re volunteers, more empowered to walk away if they don’t like a change.

No cliff

Jenkins said local officials have already tried to find state and local funds to keep up the radio system, but haven’t found anything so far. It’s a worry for officials who use the system, but Jenkins says the area isn’t about to fall off a radio “cliff.”

“It wouldn’t be a disaster if we don’t solve the problem this year, but time is limited,” he said. “That’s why we’re trying to act expediently.”

In announcing their push for a property tax to pay for the system, local officials said they were hoping to have a pair of bills passed and a constitutional amendment on the local ballot in both counties as early as June.

It’s not clear whether they can make that happen. The bills are still in draft form, and the Alabama Legislature is already halfway through its session. One local legislator, Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, has said he needs to see the final bill before making a decision. Others in the House have expressed support for the idea, and unease about endorsing a bill that’s still in draft mode.

Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, initially rejected the property tax, saying he’s opposed to any tax increase. Since then, he’s said he’s not willing to “close the door” on the measure.

Jenkins said he’s still hoping for passage this year, but he’s already begun to talk about the possibility of a vote in a future legislative session.

“Next year, if we try again, the radio system will still be working,” he said.

But if the property tax doesn’t work, local officials will have to find another funding source, soon.

“If we can’t afford to keep it, we have to have a plan for the next step,” he said.

Capitol & statewide correspondent: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.

© 2013