County Faces Major Communications Overhaul
Moore County faces a possible $5.2 million revamping of the emergency communications system by 2013.
The alternative is a possible loss of communication capability between emergency responders among towns, the county, schools and the college.
Scot Brooks, public safety chief, unveiled the grim details Thursday before the quarterly elected officials' forum, hosted by the Moore County Board of Commissioners at the Senior Enrichment Center.
"We're going to have to move and move rather quickly in one direction," Brooks said of the Jan. 1, 2013, deadline set by the Federal Communications Commission.
That FCC directive requires all nonfederal public safety licensees to cut their emergency radio systems in half. In Moore County, that means reducing the 25 kHz radio systems to narrow band 12.5 kHz.
Responding to a question, Brooks said the change was ordered because of the greater demand for emergency communications across the country. He warned that systems may eventually be required to cut their systems even further.
Of four options explored, the system known as VIPER is the recommended alternative to keep communications running between 11 municipal police departments, 17 fire departments, 10 rescue squads, the Sheriff's Office, Emergency Medical Services, the public schools' police force, the college police force and other county agencies, such as the health department and animal control.
VIPER is the system in use by the State Highway Patrol, which would administer the program. It appears to be the preferred system elsewhere in North Carolina, with several neighboring counties already in the process of converting to VIPER.
Brooks reported that Randolph, Lee and Montgomery counties are making the transition to VIPER. Chatham, Richmond and Scotland are evaluating VIPER, and Harnett and Hoke are compliant.
A major concern among emergency responders is uncertainty about building penetration issues with VIPER. Fire and rescue workers want to make sure they can communicate with each other when working inside buildings with certain types of metal construction.
Otherwise VIPER is the system with the largest number of pluses, including cost for infrastructure. What drives up the estimated cost is the cost of other equipment, such as $750,000 for 911 consoles, $1,160,000 to buy mobile units for each vehicle in the county, $1,860,000 to buy 600 portable units, and $255,000 for pagers.
Another $450,000 would probably be needed for N.C. State Highway Patrol tower capacity upgrades.
"The system we have today is not perfect," Brooks said. "We've got to design this one to be better."
The county's present emergency communication tower system dates to 1977 and cost about $800,000. Transmitters are in Carthage, Southern Pines, Robbins and Crains Creek, with receivers at those locations as well as Robbins, Westmoore, Seven Lakes and Pinebluff.
Administration by the state has pros and cons. Brooks said the county would have limited control of the system but the Highway Patrol has around-the-clock technicians available to address problems.
Brooks said there are funding sources available although his grant application for a $750,000 AFG (American Firefighters) grant was turned down in November. But that was just the first round of applications, and the county can re-apply. Another prospect is the Governor's Crime Commission, which offers 50/50 grants to eligible applicants.
Fees levied through telephone bills to fund the emergency communications systems can be applied to purchase of the 911 consoles, but Brooks said the available funds would be insufficient to pay for all consoles and still have enough money to apply to system operations. He pointed out that use of the 911 levy is limited by law.
Brooks fielded a series of questions from municipal officials and the county commissioners. Of special concern is the building penetration issue.
The existing tower operated at Southern Pines by Time Warner is scheduled for removal, but the Highway Patrol plans to erect another tower designed to provide better coverage. However, Brooks said there is no assurance that the new tower will cover the entire area until it's time to test the tower.
Douglas P. Logan, emergency management coordinator and fire marshal for Granville County, and Trooper Lane Hobbs of the Highway Patrol also addressed the gathering to provide back-up information about VIPER.
VIPER has been operational about four years in Granville County, "a tall skinny county" that abuts the Virginia line and such counties as Durham and Franklin.
"We've had every issue you guys have talked about," Logan said. "There was blood, sweat and tears and a lot of sleepless nights, and we decided VIPER was the best system for us, and the VIPER system has worked well for us."
Logan said his county had some problems with building penetration at first, but the situation improved considerably when a new tower was erected.
"I would not encourage anybody to do away with their old system," Logan said in response to a question from his audience.
Logan said his county invested $1 million of taxpayer dollars in the new system and paid for the rest through grants.
Hobbs is stationed in Raleigh and assigned to the VIPER project. He is the Highway Patrol's project liaison with Moore County.
The Highway Patrol still relies on its old system, but replacement parts are not available, Hobbs reported. He said the state initiated "a robust campaign" to improve communications systems shortly after the 9/11 tragedy.
Hobbs said the Highway Patrol now has 162 sites on the system, 240 other sites to bring into the system and 53,000 users on the system. He said the system has capability to add an unlimited number of new users.
"I am also a volunteer firefighter and a paramedic in Franklin County," Hobbs added to illustrate his on-scene understanding of the system.
Contact Florence Gilkeson at email@example.com.
More like this story