Official: County E911 gear running out of time

WOODSTOCK – Shenandoah County’s emergency communications equipment is on its last legs.

But how much the county will have to spend to upgrade its E911 system remains uncertain.

The county received “end-of-life” notices for the radio system in late October, meaning that support and parts are no longer available for the equipment, R. Jason Malloy, director of emergency communications said during his quarterly presentation to the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday.

“It puts us in a very big predicament,” Malloy said. “Once we hit those end-of-life dates, if the system breaks it’s broke. It cannot be repaired.

Malloy didn’t have cost estimates for new equipment. The county would need to go through the procurement process by seeking bids or proposals to replace the equipment. But the county doesn’t have much time to wait.

Dispatch consoles in the Emergency 911 center have an end-of-life date of Dec. 31, 2018, while the mountaintop transmitters and repeaters would reach their end of life two years later, Malloy said. Both systems must be replaced within two to four years. The existing hand-held and vehicle radios will not work with a new system so the county also would need to replace that equipment.

The county could use a stopgap for the dispatch consoles that would extend the end-of-life date to 2020. Such an upgrade would take 3-5 years but the county needs to do it in two to four years because of when it received the end-of-life notices, Malloy said.

Page County faces a similar situation, Malloy told the board. The county also needs to replace its emergency communications equipment. Page County’s Emergency Communications Center Director Darris Ritenour said Tuesday afternoon that it’s still too soon to determine the cost to upgrade its equipment.

Shenandoah County also could face setbacks or delays because it lies in a radio quiet zone – an area delineated by the Federal Communications Commission that covers portions of Maryland, West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio, where radio transmitters are reduced in signal strength because they are near a military installation or NASA radio telescope, Malloy said. The county’s Deerhead transmitter operates in that zone, he added. The county would then need to coordinate the transmitter’s frequency with the FCC to ensure the use of the device does not interfere with the federal installations, Malloy said.

The county uses an analog system and the number of radio channels remains limited to how many licenses the locality holds. The county has approximately 10-12 channels to cover users in law enforcement, fire and rescue, public works, the landfill, courts and government. Currently the analog system allows the county to send a broadcast to one tower at a time. The county has two main tower sites, one in Zepp and the other on Tower Mountain Road in the southern end, Malloy said. Emergency responders in the northern end of the county operate on a different radio channel than those on the southern end.

Any future system would need to be digital, Malloy said. Digital systems allow users to broadcast information to all sites simultaneously. Programming requirements with digital systems are dynamic, meaning that one channel will use whatever random radio frequency is not in use, Malloy explained. This process is called radio “trunking” and allows channels to share frequencies, he said. Currently, a user in New Market wishing to speak to someone in Strasburg would need to have dispatch relay the message or use a cell phone, Malloy explained.

“This type of system would enable point-to-point communication virtually anywhere that we have radio coverage in the county,” Malloy said.

Grant funding is only available for digital systems.

“Basically the FCC, the government is making a push to get away from the analog systems wherever possible,” Malloy said. “So, to qualify for any kind of grants, to be able to submit for any kind of grant, you have to be proposing a digital system.”

Digital can provide a clearer signal but also resends and strengthens any distortion in the broadcast, Malloy added.

In response to a question from District 4 Supervisor Cindy Bailey, Malloy said he believes the county school system uses digital radios on its buses.

Contact staff writer Alex Bridges at 540-465-5137 ext. 125, or abridges@nvdaily.com

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