County Settles on VIPER for Emergency Communications
VIPER is the narrow band system chosen for Moore County’s new emergency communications system.
The board of commissioners voted unanimously at a work session earlier this month to proceed with plans to implement the new system by the Federal Communications Commission deadline of Jan. 1, 2013.
What the board did not decide was exactly how to pay the tab, estimated as high as $4.9 million.
“VIPER is the least expensive option,” said Commissioner Larry Caddell, who made the motion directing the staff to move ahead on the narrow band issue using the VIPER system and also authorizing bids. “Based on the evidence we have, it’s a no-brainer.”
VIPER is the system currently in use by the State Highway Patrol, which would hold the license and administer the program on behalf of Moore County.
Public Safety Director Bryan Phillips, Chief Deputy Neil Godfrey, Emergency Management Chief Scot Brooks and Fire Marshal Ken Skipper offered information to the commissioners during the work session held at the Agriculture Center in Carthage.
Once installed, the system will connect emergency responders throughout the county including fire, rescue, ambulance and law enforcement units.
Two municipalities, Pinehurst and Southern Pines, have opted not to join VIPER, but Phillips said this would not be a problem. The only impact will be felt in the fire departments, he said. Phillips said it will be necessary to “patch them into our system” but both departments would be integrated into the new system.
Assistant County Manager Ken Larking had prepared four options for funding the costly change mandated by the FCC. The options vary according to amounts taken from such sources as the advanced life support (ALS) tax for ambulance and paramedic service, Enhanced 911 funds and the county’s general fund, along with use of district fire taxes and municipal fees.
The commissioners did not select an option but did discuss methods to pay for the pricey new system without raising any tax rates.
Commissioner Tim Lea wanted to know if it would be possible to borrow funds from the capital reserve fund with payback coming from other sources once the county’s financial situation has improved.
Chairman Nick Picerno wanted to know if the fire district tax could be raised and used to reimburse the ALS fund or the 911 fund, which have more stringent restrictions on their uses.
County Manager Cary McSwain said these issues raise some legal questions and might be best discussed in a closed session. The fire tax rates vary widely from district to district and do not apply to all county taxpayers. Residents of municipalities, for example, pay for fire protection through municipal taxes, not through the fire district tax.
“This is an unfunded mandate,” Caddell said. “What happens to us if we don’t change?”
Phillips said lots of things could happen. For one, the FCC could pull the county’s license, leaving the county unable to communicate with emergency responders here or elsewhere. Then, the FCC could fine the county for each day of these infractions.
McSwain said the project is being treated as a multi-year major capital project and funding will be built into the budget. The appropriation for the current year totals $363,879, with $106,711 of that covering interest. For the 2011-2012 year, he is recommending an appropriation of $772,000, including $472,000 in principal and $300,000 in interest.
Phillips said it is likely the total cost of the changeover will be lower than projected, something that won’t be known until bids are in and more details are available. One cost-saving aspect is the fact that the county will not be required to secure licenses for each of the numerous units using the system. The SHP will provide administration and maintenance.
The total cost includes such things as E-911 consoles, paging equipment, mobile repeaters, administration and connections with all emergency units, including the sheriff’s department and municipalities, as well as an upgrade to the SHP tower serving the system.
Most neighboring counties have already either switched to VIPER or are in the process of doing so.
Godfrey said VIPER will make it possible for county responders to communicate with all neighboring counties as well as each other and will also provide confidentiality in communications.
At present, Moore County cannot communicate with Cumberland and Hoke counties because of the difference in systems. With VIPER, this gap in emergency communications should be filled.
The FCC narrow band requirement has been discussed at a series of work sessions involving emergency responders and municipalities.
The FCC mandate requires non-federal public safety licensees using 25 kHz radio systems (broadband) to migrate to 12.5 kHz channels by 2013. The reason is the increased crowding of the existing systems because of the growing number of units using emergency communications.
Otherwise, the systems now serving emergency responders in Moore County are working without serious problems.
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