County makes switch to new emergency radio system

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 28 May 2014 at 12:00 am

Photos by Tom Rivers – At 10:43 a.m. today, Kevin Doherty switched off the analog equipent and made a digital system the sole system after weeks of testing the new emergency communications system. Doherty is one of the county’s consultants for the project. The analog equipment is in front of Doherty and to his left. The digital equipment is much more compact and represents two racks to his right.

Keith Whitt, a consultant on the new emergency communications system, works in the Civil Defense Center this morning after the new digital system was activated.

ALBION – Firefighters, police officers, highway workers and other first responders in Orleans County now have a new emergency communications system.

The county officially made the switch from an analog system to a digital one at 10:43 a.m. today. The “cut over” was scheduled for 10 a.m., but a fire call in Holley delayed the change. The county wanted to wait until after that call before changing over to the new system.

The county has been working with contractors to test the new system in recent weeks. Users can expect better coverage, especially on the eastern and western edges of the county and along Lake Ontario where there were weak signals and often dead spots.

“I think everybody will be presently surprised,” said Paul Wagner, the county’s emergency management director. “The coverage is spectacular in my opinion.”

The county built the analog system in 1991-92. It included one tower on West County House Road by the Civil Defense Center and Fire Training Center.

As part of the new $7.1 million upgrade, the county added three towers: one by the Clarendon Highway Department near Route 31A, one in Albion by the Civil Defense Center and one in Shelby next to the Medina water tank on Route 31A.

Those towers help ensure nearly blanket coverage in the county, including on the edges. The towers also will expand coverage of the county’s signal into eastern Niagara, southern Genesee and western Monroe counties, where Orleans firefighters often respond for mutual aid calls.

The Harris Corporation is guaranteeing 95 percent coverage in Orleans, but Wagner said tests with radios show the system has about 99 percent coverage.

Paul Wagner, the county’s emergency management director, points to a rack that transmits signals from the radio towers to the consoles and the radios.

Paul Wagner listens to a portable radio while Dennis Rose, left, talks with Keith Whitt. Rose is the project manager for the harris Corporation and Whitt is a consultant on the project.

The upgrade includes emergency communications equipment at the dispatch center at the Public Safety Building in Albion and the backup location at the Civil Defense Center.

The upgrade also includes 1,100 radios for police, firefighters, Probation officers and other emergency responders. There are also 550 mobile systems that are mounted in police cars, highway vehicles, fire trucks and other vehicles.

The analog system that was at least 22 years old was designed for mobile units and not handheld portable radios. Users found the portable radios were often unreliable, especially when they were brought inside a house.

The new radios on the digital system were tested by firefighters over the weekend, and Wagner said they reported they worked fine inside houses, including many basements.

The county has been working on the upgrade since 2004. It was a challenging project that required permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission and its counterpart in Canada.

The county needed to make the upgrade because manufacturers of analog system radios, tower equipment and other infrastructure have notified users that parts will soon no longer be available. The phase out of analog has prompted many municipalities around the country to push for new systems, said Keith Whitt, vice president of consulting services with Trott Communications Group in Irving, Texas.

He has been working as a consultant for the county for about four years, first with its rebanding, or its switch to a new approved signal and system. He has been a technical consultant the past year, inspecting the new equipment and making sure the system serves the county.

“There are still quite a few analogs but there has been a big shift to digital,” Whitt said. “The analogs are all at an end-of-life mode. The part supplies are running out.”

County officials are planning a celebration this afternoon in the Legislature Chambers at 3:45 to mark the transition to the new system.