Archive for Thursday, May 10, 2007

Digital radio to cost JoCo $23.8 million

May 10, 2007

There will come a day when emergency responders have to communicate over digital radio systems because analog systems will be outdated -- and against the rules.

It's a process that will cost some local counties millions of dollars. Johnson County, the first county to change to digital locally, plans to spend $22.8 million to install a digital system by next year.

Douglas County is projecting a $7 million to $9 million price tag for infrastructure to support a digital system.

In Leavenworth County, it's a much more expensive process, possibly costing the county as much as $20 million.

One of the perceived benefits of switching to digital radios -- to make it easier for emergency responders to communicate with each other -- won't happen because of the switchover alone.

"There are many people making a lot of money trying to make it sound as though it's the same issue," said Jim Denney, director of Douglas County Emergency Communications.

Since major disasters like the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security has encouraged public safety communications systems to become interoperable.

In other words, emergency responders could manage incidents from fires to major disasters more effectively if different agencies -- fire, medical, police and others -- could communicate directly more easily.

Finding the funding

Counties are trying to determine how they will pay for new digital systems, a move that the Federal Communications Commission is pushing to free more radio frequencies.

By 2018, all radio transmissions in the United States must be done in digital format, according to Denney.

Though the switch is years from now, it's not too soon to start preparing.

"If you want a fully digital system by 2018, you have to start working on it seven years in advance," Denney said.

Chuck Magaha, director of emergency management for Leavenworth County, said a 1-cent sales tax could be used to collect money for its emergency communications upgrade.

"The one thing to be conscious about (is) this is something that doesn't just affect Leavenworth County," Magaha said. "It's affecting the entire nation on the process of the digital concept."

Magaha said about $1 billion in federal grants are available to help with the transition, but the money will be dispersed mostly based on population and potential risk that jurisdictions face.

That means by the time larger public safety organizations in places like New York, California and Texas scoop up most of the grants, there won't be much money left for northeast Kansas.

"It's going to go pretty quick," Magaha said.

Wait-and-see approach

Douglas County commissioners have started to put money aside to help pay for upgrades to the county's communications system.

Smaller counties won't have to pay as much for their systems, but they also have less tax money to draw from and it's less likely that places like Jefferson County can get a share of federal grants.

Douglas Schmitt, Jefferson County director of emergency management, is taking a wait-and-see approach to that county's radio systems, much like a thrifty consumer might wait several years for the price of a new electronic gadget to go down before buying it.

"We're sitting back and kind of looking at all our options," Schmitt said.

At the other extreme, Johnson County has a $22.8 million budget for its digital system, slated to be completed by the end of 2008.

Walter Way, director of emergency management for Johnson County, expects the county's digital system to be interoperable with emergency responder units in all 20 cities within the county plus systems for the state of Kansas, Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Mo.

"A lot of times, our responses are over in Missouri and Wyandotte County and vice versa," Way said.

Douglas County is projecting a $7 million to $9 million price tag for infrastructure to support a digital system.

In Leavenworth County, it's a much more expensive process, possibly costing the county as much as $20 million.

One of the perceived benefits of switching to digital radios -- to make it easier for emergency responders to communicate with each other -- won't happen because of the switchover alone.

"There are many people making a lot of money trying to make it sound as though it's the same issue," said Jim Denney, director of Douglas County Emergency Communications.

Since major disasters like the Sept. 11 attacks and Hurricane Katrina, the Department of Homeland Security has encouraged public safety communications systems to become interoperable.

In other words, emergency responders could manage incidents from fires to major disasters more effectively if different agencies -- fire, medical, police and others -- could communicate directly more easily.

Finding the funding

Counties are trying to determine how they will pay for new digital systems, a move that the Federal Communications Commission is pushing to free more radio frequencies.

By 2018, all radio transmissions in the United States must be done in digital format, according to Denney.

Though the switch is years from now, it's not too soon to start preparing.

"If you want a fully digital system by 2018, you have to start working on it seven years in advance," Denney said.

Chuck Magaha, director of emergency management for Leavenworth County, said a 1-cent sales tax could be used to collect money for its emergency communications upgrade.

"The one thing to be conscious about (is) this is something that doesn't just affect Leavenworth County," Magaha said. "It's affecting the entire nation on the process of the digital concept."

Magaha said about $1 billion in federal grants are available to help with the transition, but the money will be dispersed mostly based on population and potential risk that jurisdictions face.

That means by the time larger public safety organizations in places like New York, California and Texas scoop up most of the grants, there won't be much money left for northeast Kansas.

"It's going to go pretty quick," Magaha said.

Wait-and-see approach

Douglas County commissioners have started to put money aside to help pay for upgrades to the county's communications system.

Smaller counties won't have to pay as much for their systems, but they also have less tax money to draw from and it's less likely that places like Jefferson County can get a share of federal grants.

Douglas Schmitt, Jefferson County director of emergency management, is taking a wait-and-see approach to that county's radio systems, much like a thrifty consumer might wait several years for the price of a new electronic gadget to go down before buying it.

"We're sitting back and kind of looking at all our options," Schmitt said.

At the other extreme, Johnson County has a $22.8 million budget for its digital system, slated to be completed by the end of 2008.

Walter Way, director of emergency management for Johnson County, expects the county's digital system to be interoperable with emergency responder units in all 20 cities within the county plus systems for the state of Kansas, Wyandotte County and Kansas City, Mo.

"A lot of times, our responses are over in Missouri and Wyandotte County and vice versa," Way said.

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