Why town, county going it alone on new radio systems

FRONT ROYAL – Both the Warren County Sheriff’s Office and the Front Royal Police Department will soon have new Motorola VHF radio systems.

FRONT ROYAL – Both the Warren County Sheriff’s Office and the Front Royal Police Department will soon have new Motorola VHF radio systems. 

The county approved the $1.17 million purchase of system upgrades in June 2017 while the town will vote on a new $545,000 system that councilmembers have appeared to reach a consensus on purchasing. Gerry Boyd, a Motorola technician, said the new systems would provide greatly increased coverage area compared to their current 800 band radios. 

While both the new systems for the Sheriff’s Office’s and town police are essentially the same, Boyd said it would not have been cheaper for the departments to make a joint purchase. 

The new system for the Sheriff’s Office will use updated versions of its old repeaters on towers in Linden, Bentonville and just outside of town. 

The town police system requires that a new repeater be placed on a tower at the water treatment plant off Aqueduct Lane and the installation of an antenna at the new police station. Boyd said while on the surface it makes sense for the town to use a county tower, it would not work.

Boyd said establishing new frequencies require localities to obtain Federal Communications Commission licenses, which ensure that neighboring jurisdictions do not interfere with each other. He said it was easier for town police to obtain a frequency with coverage restricted to town as opposed to piggybacking onto the Sheriff’s Office’s system.

Police Chief Kahle Magalis added that a more concentrated signal provides stronger coverage. 

Magalis noted that a joint purchase would not save money because equipment such as radios and dispatch consoles are more than half of the expense. He added that there would be monthly rental fees if the town’s repeater were on county towers. 

When asked why the two departments could not use the same frequency, Sheriff’s Office Maj. Mike Arnold and Magalis said it would be too much traffic.

While the two agencies opted to not jointly purchase the system, they have also decided not to operate out of a joint dispatch center as Shenandoah County does.

Jason Malloy, director of the Shenandoah County Department of Emergency Communications, said all of the county’s communications have operated out of a joint center for decades. That means the center dispatches all calls for the Sheriff’s Office, police departments within the county and fire and rescue.

He said a benefit of a joint center specific to Shenandoah County is that all calls are answered at one location, which results in citizens receiving service a little quicker than if calls have to be transferred. 

“Having all calls handled by our center assures that all callers receive the same level of service,” he said. 

Malloy indicated that there might be other benefits, but said he is “going to leave it at that,” not wanting to raise doubts about other jurisdictions systems.

“What might benefit us might not benefit others,” he said. 

In Frederick County, Sheriff Lenny Millholland said that one dispatch center is used for the Sheriff’s Office, fire and rescue and police departments. The Winchester police and Sheriff’s Office, however, operate out of a separate center.

Millholland said Winchester and Frederick officials have discussed a joint communications center and while it would make “perfect sense” it has not happened.

“You have to have jurisdictions that agree to do it and…that’s a little bit of red tape where you have to get everybody to agree,” he said. “That takes a whole lot of people agreeing.”

Warren County Administrator Doug Stanley said officials have discussed the possibility of a joint communications center during numerous Town-County Liason Committee meetings. Minutes from such meetings dating back to 2004 indicate that town officials were not interested.

Warren County Sheriff Daniel McEathron, who is the director of the Emergency 911 Communications Center, said a joint dispatch operation could work well.

The Emergency 911 Center, which is located in the Public Safety Building, dispatches fire and rescue, animal control and the Sheriff’s Office. It also receives 911 calls from town citizens, which are transferred to the town police’s dispatch center. 

According to minutes from Liaison Committee meetings, McEathron has noted the advantages of a joint center would be the consolidation of the number of dispatchers and that 911 calls would not have to be rerouted.

Stanley noted savings would be found in equipment purchases and that each center operates 24/7. Arnold added that if a dispatch center goes down, it is good to have a backup. 

McEathron also cited potential difficulties with a joint center, including procedural changes, different titles, different pay rates and changing job descriptions.

While the two agencies will have the same radios, Magalis said they have different reporting procedures, which “both agencies are probably fairly well invested in them to the point where it wouldn’t make good fiscal sense to switch any of that up.”

As discussions of a joint center spanned a decade-plus, McEathron said many county officials remained the same while town officials changed, rendering it difficult to reach a consensus.

While planning for the new Police Department was underway, McEathron said he asked then-Police Chief Norman Shifflett if the town wanted to join the communications center. He said Shiflett declined, and he does not know why.

When the county began construction on the Public Safety Building, which houses the 911 center and the Sheriff’s Office, room was left for expansion. The communications center houses five dispatch consoles with space for three more.   

McEathron said the extra room was not constructed necessarily for a joint facility, noting that the building is meant to sustain 40 years of needs and could house more county dispatchers if needed.

McEathron said a joint facility does not appear to be on the horizon, as the new police department building will have its own communication center.

Magalis said that the set up “makes sense for now.” McEathron agreed, saying “I don’t see anywhere where services aren’t being provided.”