BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
LEE COUNTY – County officials are moving ahead with plans to transition emergency responders’ radios to a digital platform.
The move could carry a price tag of close to $5 million that would, in all likelihood, be paid for by bonds issued through the county that would become county debt.
Currently the county uses a VHF analog communication system that is not only antiquated, but often times unreliable.
The situation manifested itself on Dec. 11 when officers were called to an active shooter situation at Scotts MiracleGro. Fort Madison Police Chief Mark Rohloff said at times, communication was almost non-existent.
The shooter was shot and killed by a Fort Madison officer, but Rohloff said the digital transition has to take place as a matter of public safety.
“At Scotts we were inside that building and communication dropped to almost 0 due to the structure and low power,” Rohloff said Monday.
“VHF is outdated and the (Federal Communications Commission) narrow bandwidths, everyone has to go to a digital solution. With the vendors we’re getting RFPs from, we’re asking for 95% strength 95% of the time.”
Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber said currently he would estimate coverage at about 55-60% of the time, but depending on distance and structures, that could be even a smaller percentage.
Several vehicle pursuits in the past two weeks were also hampered by poor communication. Det. Chad Donaldson was in pursuit of a vehicle in western Lee County and was almost completely cut off from any support and Lee Comm communication.
The recent chase westbound on Hwy. 16 that ended up with a man being tasered and taken into custody was also hampered by interrupted communication.
Weber agreed with the digital providing 95% coverage.
“That’s the standard now. No one goes below that,” Weber said.
“There are some instances where, geographically speaking, you’re going to have a hard time. But in Lee County, the terrain isn’t that bad. But with the digital expansion, the coverage can be met at 95%.”
Weber said the technology will also let you know if you have coverage or you don’t by a tone, when personnel key their portable radio microphones.
He said digital will also take away the sketchy transmissions.
“When you key the mike, it will tell you by a tone that you don’t have access to a tower. That’s pretty nice because it takes the guess work out of it.”
“That’s how it will be with digital.. you’ll have coverage or you don’t. Now there are places where it’s so sketchy you can’t be heard. Digital also takes that away,” Weber said.
The sheriff also said the expansion will allow him to communicate with state troopers across the state.
“We’re doing so much more together right now and I cannot talk to a state trooper anywhere in the state of Iowa in my car,” Weber said.
“There’s a patch that was given at no charge from the state to Lee Comm to allow that communication. But with digital, I should have direct access to those officers from my vehicle.”
He said at the end of the day it’s a big investment in a time when everyone is squeezing budgets.
“This is a service and sometimes it’s gonna be expensive, and sometimes there’s not money to cover everything. But sometimes you just have to find the money.”
The cost of the improvements are yet to be determined, but it will likely be millions.
Cindy Renstrom, the county budget director, said the best option for funding the improvement would be for the county to issue a general obligation bond for the costs. The bonds would then be included in the debt service levy, which it outside the state’s mandated 2% soft-cap on revenue growth.
“That’s what I’d like to do and what I would suggest to the board,” Renstrom said Monday.
“The only other options would be each city and entity would have to separately come up with their share of the cost.”
Currently, the county E911 board is paying for the initial consultations and and Requests for Proposals should be going out shortly. Federal Engineering, Inc., out of Fairfax, Va. is currently contracted to help the Lee County Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) board develop the specs on the RFPs.
Fort Madison Fire Chief Joey Herren said a public information campaign will probably begin in the near future to talk openly on the new systems, the cost, and the need.
Herren said coverage in buildings is imperative for him as well when firefighters are inside structures.
“We’ve done the study on what we have location-wise and tower-wise. All that legwork has been done. That was the first phase and now we’re moving onto phase two with the RFPs, and we’re getting ready to sign the contract to start that,” he said.
Herren said the investigation into what improvements are needed is still ongoing.
At this point the expansion hasn’t come to the board officially, and probably won’t until the RFPs have been received and the PSAP board is ready to move forward.
Herren said it’s time for the county to move ahead.
“When I’m standing right there looking at a building knowing guys are inside and I can’t communicate with them, and the building has smoke and fire, and I yell at them two or three times… I’m thinking, are these guys still with me, or what?” Herren said
“I wanna get this fixed.”
He said when the RFP contract is approved and signed, that firm will go out and take the deep dive on technology needs and come back with recommendations.
‘At that point, we’d probably hold some public town hall meetings and explain why we need to do this,” Herren said.
“Not only is this bad for us, but it’s also bad for the people we are trying to reach or save. If we don’t know where certain folks are at, and we’re trying to rescue you… communication is a big part of it.”
Rohloff said those are the same concerns he has as a police department. He said when the FCC narrowed the bandwidth on the VHF signals, which he said they are considering doing again, the signal strength dropped 25-30%.
“Open air channels in public are manageable, but when we get into buildings or the downtown area where we lose the ability to communicate, that’s a problem,” he said.
He said digital will open up more channels and navigate cross-traffic more efficiently.
“When we had the shooting, everyone was coming in at once and radio traffic lit up. Sometimes I could hear them and sometimes I could not. Then we got inside and we’re trying to do tactical things and couldn’t move off that channel,” Rohloff said.
Rohloff said the board also looked at repairing and upgrading county technology, but found it was more expensive to do that.
“That’s the most expensive option and it still leaves you with a VHF solution. Why would you want to do that to yourself?”