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Franklin Co. emergency radios going digital

Officials hope change clears up communications

Officials hope change clears up communications

November 28, 2009|By JENNIFER FITCH

FRANKLIN COUNTY -- Emergency responders in Franklin County, Pa., are preparing for a costly transition to an ultra-high frequency, digital-trunking radio system they hope provides clearer communication.

Not only is the county spending several million dollars to expand from two to five radio towers and install other hardware, but agencies such as police, fire police, ambulance and fire departments need to replace any analog radios they might have.

David K. Donohue, director of the Franklin County Department of Emergency Services, said the system was tested in Illinois and will be assembled locally over the next few weeks. It will begin operating in January, with the full switchover planned for mid-May.

"It allows us essentially to have better coverage in the county," Donohue said.

Although he described "intermittent problems" with communications between emergency responders and the 911 center, others weren't so forgiving.

"There are definitely days when you wonder if two tin cans and a string would work better," said Washington Township Police Chief Barry Keller, whose officers have problems with their radios when on ridgelines.

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Greencastle Police Chief John Phillippy said there have been times when he could see a firefighter or police officer, but not successfully reach them on the radio.

"Not only is it really frustrating, but it has a high degree of risk," he said, calling what exists now a "bubble gum and Band-Aid system."

The 40- to 50-year-old system should have lasted 20 years, Phillippy said.

"It's just long outlived its service," he said.

For as much as they're looking forward to digital communication, the promised improvements come with a price. Donohue said a survey revealed 325 to 350 radios can be upgraded or patched, yet published reports indicate another 2,000 could be affected.

A discount from the system's manufacturer, Motorola, allows portable radios to be purchased for $3,500 and mobile (vehicle) ones for about $3,700, Waynesboro Police Chief Mark King said.

"It's very expensive, but it's not a choice we have," King said, saying his department needs to replace 25 portable radios, eight mobile radios and a base station.

Many fire departments and police departments obtained state and federal grants for their purchases. Some sought the money as individual departments; others applied as a consortium.

"One of the best things we ever did was use our federal grants to buy radios that can be programed for the digital system," said Patrick Fleagle, administrator of the Blue Ridge Fire and Rescue Squad.

Franklin Fire Co. Chief Mark Trace said a FEMA grant allowed his department to obtain 40 portable and 15 mobile radios. Another eight need to be replaced.

"Basically, all of our radios are ready to go," he said.

A $500,000 Community Oriented Police Services (COPS) grant from stimulus money will be used by municipal police departments and the sheriff's department to buy radios, said Phillippy, who represents law enforcement in the Franklin County Emergency Services Alliance.

"That money should go a long way toward providing essential communications," Phillippy said.

Police departments might have needs beyond those they had at the time of application, he said.

"The upgrade that's coming in tremendous," Phillippy said. "I'm convinced it's a really good thing for emergency service providers in this county."

Donohue said the new system operates similarly to a phone system with extensions. It uses "talk groups" that share the same routing path to the dispatch center.

"There's an ability to patch into the analog," he said, saying there will need to be patches to certain entities and other counties.

Franklin County is in its third year of implementing the changeover, after a period of design beforehand. Donohue, who must replace his own radio, said the new system will better allow the county to meet requirements set forth by the National Response Framework.

Washington Township Manager Mike Christopher said the municipality's preliminary budget for 2010 doesn't include money for new radios. While radios tied into the county system are used by public works and several other departments, Christopher said those users can substitute cell phones initially. His priority is ensuring the police department successfully completes the transition.

"We would need all new portable radios for 15 full-time officers," Keller said, saying two more would be needed for part-time officers and he'd like to keep one as a spare.

Another 12 are needed for police cruisers in Washington Township.

"We had purchased four based on initially what we were told the upgrades would be," Keller said, saying he hopes those only will need patches.

None of the Greencastle Police Department's radios are digital.

"Although the county has said they intend to keep the old system up and running for a while, ultimately it's going to require an upgrade," Phillippy said, saying he held onto budgeted money from 2009 and hopes to receive more from the Greencastle Borough Council in 2010.

County officials did not return messages seeking the amount spent for the system and its installation. Previous Herald-Mail stories placed the amount at about $6.7 million.

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