County Should Proceed With New VIPER Radio System
Most of us vividly recall the horror and confusion created by the 9/11 attacks on New York City's Twin Towers.
Before the fires were out and the dust settled in lower Manhattan, review and analysis of procedures, equipment and failed communications began in earnest.
The sight of New York fire and police personnel rushing into the doomed buildings focused public attention on the life and death perils of emergency response. Working communication is paramount to all police, firefighters, disaster workers and those required to take charge of those events that may lead to loss of life, injury and property damage.
The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) has estimated that at the instant of the impact on the first tower, public service radio communications increased to five times normal levels. Throughout the day, radio traffic followed an approximate factor of three over normal. The analysis calculated that about one-third of radio messages transmitted during the emergency were not complete or could not be understood.
Different systems, incompatible equipment, dead spots, separate training among the responders and general confusion led to a loss of life and injuries, some of which might have been avoided. That is, of course, hindsight analysis.
The Federal Communication Commission has mandated that all non-federal public safety licensees using 25 kHz radio systems migrate to narrow-band 12.5 kHz channels by Jan. 1, 2013. If Moore County does not meet the deadline, it faces the possible loss of communication capabilities.
In anticipation of the regulations that will become effective next year, the Board of Commissioners in a special meeting May 11, 2011, commissioned staff to "review costs and funding options for equipment to meet the FCC's narrow-banding mandate." They also directed agencies "to use the VIPER system."
VIPER stands for "Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders."
The staff provided its findings in written form dated this past Feb. 7, confirming the decision to purchase the VIPER that will comply with new FCC mandates, including a change of frequencies. The report was an in-depth discussion of the many variables under consideration.
Radio and transmitting equipment for VIPER is provided and maintained statewide by the North Carolina Highway Patrol without cost to the users. The report identified tower sites that would be providing radio coverage in Moore County, including Carthage, Southern Pines, Tramway, Sprout Springs, McCain, Ellerbe, Biscoe, Siler City and Coleridge.
Testing by the Sheriff's Office in the Robbins area has been accomplished, and the commissioners were advised of four problem sites. In addition, the report detailed other areas where ground topography causes small spots of inoperability.
The report was prepared before the new Southern Pines tower was placed in operation, and staff members say testing continues throughout the county.
The staff report responded directly to issues raised by critics and pointed out the disadvantages of a reprogramming and UHF upgrading that had been suggested.
There was an acknowledgement that those municipalities to be affected by the conversion to VIPER could have been better educated about the capabilities of the entire system. Needs of the Sheriff's Office are broader than that of a town, since communication with surrounding jurisdictions is more critical to successful response.
Support for VIPER has been offered by police and fire officials from Moore County towns - including Southern Pines and Pinehurst, which have recently upgraded their own UHF equipment. Rumors that the State Highway Patrol intends to abandon VIPER are incorrect. Repots of loss of signal in the interior of certain buildings, while for the most part said to be untrue, are being investigated by on-site testing.
The cost of the upgrade to VIPER has been estimated to be $5.098 in total. Moore County has budgeted $689,348 for UHF/microwave infrastructure upgrades that are already under way. The net new costs would be $4.4 million.
Two funding sources have been identified that would further reduce the cost to Moore County, including an AFG grant and a Governors Crime Commission match. Operating costs for leased telephone lines in the amount of more than $100,000 per year can be eliminated when VIPER is operational.
It would appear that our state has a commitment to enhanced communications among public safety units, that the staff has prepared a remarkable analysis, that cutting-edge equipment is in the best interest of the public, and that the commissioners should ignore quibbling and fund the VIPER project.
Walter B. Bull Jr. lives in Pinehurst. Contact him at email@example.com.
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