Aging emergency radio system nearing the end

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County is facing the prospect of having to replace its radio system within the next few years, the county director of emergency communications told the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

“Our system is starting to show its age,” R. Jason Malloy said. “We have been receiving static interference, which is typical of aging equipment.”

Malloy said Motorola has served notice on the county that manufacturer’s maintenance and spare parts will not be available for key parts of the system, which was installed in 1999, within three to five years. Motorola will stop servicing the dispatch consoles by December 2018 and mountain top transmitters by Dec. 31, 2020, Malloy said.

The county faces several problems in replacing the current system, Malloy said.

It normally takes three to five years to replace a radio system, but the county is looking at two to four years from the beginning to completion of its replacement project, Malloy said.

“If it breaks, it’s out of service until it’s replaced,” Malloy said of the radio system. “There would be a loss of service.”

Replacing the mountain top transmitters and dispatch consoles, which allow dispatchers to send and receive messages, also means replacing handheld radios and mobile radios in vehicles out in the county.

“The problem with vehicle and handheld radios is they won’t function on the new system,” Malloy said. “The current system is analog. The new systems are going digital, so that would be the equivalent of a flip phone and a smart phone. The flip phone makes calls, but you can’t do anything else with it, whereas with your smart phone, you can do just about anything with it.”

Some parts of the county lie in what is designated as a National Radio Quiet Zone, which constitutes a large area where radio traffic is legally restricted to make it easier to conduct scientific and military research. Malloy described the Radio Quiet Zone as a major cause of spotty radio coverage around Mount Jackson and New Market and “a huge complication” for the installation of a new radio system.

“It adds a level of complexity that most jurisdictions do not have,” Malloy said.

Malloy gave no estimate on the cost of replacing the radio system, but board chairman David Ferguson said the message was clear.

“We’re talking about a lot of money to replace this,” Ferguson said.

Malloy said his department will soon be considering whether to initiate a request for proposal process that would lead to the hiring of a consultant for the radio replacement project.

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com