New radio system to improve communication in Peach

bpurser@macon.comMarch 24, 2013 

Communication among public safety agencies in Peach County is expected to improve when Fort Valley police and fire switch over to a high frequency digital system.

Right now, Fort Valley police and fire can communicate directly among themselves but not with most sheriff’s deputies, firefighters and emergency medical responders in Peach County already on the VHF digital system.

The city’s police and fire, which have 800 megahertz equipment, now rely on 911 to relay messages to other public safety agencies within the county.

But that’s about to change.

Fort Valley Public Safety Director Lawrence Spurgeon said he expects the switch to take place in the next 30 to 60 days.

“It helps promote interoperability among all the agencies, which in turn helps us coordinate all our efforts and provide protection of life and property to the citizens of Fort Valley as a whole,” Spurgeon said.

Erecting a tower

The switch comes with the October completion of Peach County’s 400-foot communications tower behind its public safety complex at 1770 U.S. 341 and the approval of agreements earlier this month among the county and agencies for use of the tower.

The agreement with Fort Valley allows the city to place its new police and fire radio equipment on the tower at no charge. Once the equipment arrives, it’s expected to take about 30 days to install. The city will be responsible for the maintenance of its equipment.

The Peach County Board of Education, which donated the land for the tower, already has its equipment in place on the tower under a similar agreement.

There had been discussions of renting space on the tower. But Peach County commissioners decided against charging other governmental entities because the $200,000 tower was constructed with revenue generated from a special purpose local option sales tax, said Peach County Emergency Management Agency Director Jeff Doles.

The 800 megahertz system is now located on a 220-foot Flint Energies’ tower about a mile south of the sheriff’s office on U.S. 341 South.

The county plans to move that equipment, along with a data line that connects it to Houston County’s 800 megahertz system, to its new tower. The moving of equipment is expected to cost about $12,000 and take about 60 days, Doles said.

About half of the cost is expected to come from revenue set aside in the sales tax for the new tower, Doles said. The remaining $5,900 will come from money set aside for the jail expansion, said Peach County Sheriff Terry Deese. The equipment was once attached to a communications tower at the jail that came down with the facility’s expansion.

The move is expected to save Peach County about $716 in monthly rent paid to Flint Energies to use its tower, Doles estimated. He expects the cost savings to offset the expense of the move.

Also, various options had been proposed for what to do with the 800 megahertz system -- including selling it. But Deese was among those who favored keeping the system in play primarily because that enables some Peach County public safety personnel to talk directly with Houston County agencies that communicate on an 800 megahertz system.

For example, emergency medical workers transporting a Fort Valley resident to Houston Medical Center communicate with the hospital through the 800 megahertz systems, Deese said. Also, Peach County has mutual aid agreements with Houston public safety agencies, which makes it beneficial to communicate directly, he said.

Shift from 800 megahertz

At one time, Peach County was moving toward a countywide 800 megahertz system similar to what’s in place in Houston County. Peach County received 16 compatible radios through a grant, Deese said. The radios were spread out among sheriff’s deputies, emergency rescue workers and county firefighters. Peach’s 800 megahertz equipment was linked with Houston’s 800 megahertz system.

Houston County did not charge Peach County for linking the radios earlier purchased through the grant, and Peach County did not charge Houston County agencies to roam on the Flint Tower.

Fort Valley later purchased radios compatible with the 800 megahertz equipment, with Houston County charging a per-radio fee for Fort Valley to link those radios with its system. The cost to Fort Valley averages from $12,000 to $16,000 a year, Doles said. The potential cost was expected to climb substantially had Fort Valley added radios.

In the end, Peach County officials decided to move the 800 megahertz equipment at the Flint Energies tower to its new tower and keep the data link with Houston County. Fort Valley officials have not decided whether to continue using the 800 megahertz system since it’s a reoccurring cost with Houston County, Spurgeon said. Other Peach County agencies, which aren’t charged for their radio use, will continue to remain interconnected with Houston County agencies, Deese said.

Also, although there were discussions about asking Houston County to furnish the data line and charge Houston County for space on Peach County’s new tower, no such proposal materialized, Doles said. He said such talk was like opening “a can of worms.”

Houston County sheriff’s Capt. Ricky Harlowe, the 911 director, said it’s unlikely the county would have paid for use of the Peach County tower. He said Houston County’s system is self-sufficient and without gaps in coverage.

After the 9/11 terrorist attack on the U.S., there was a nationwide push to move all public safety agencies to 800 megahertz systems, Deese said. But that later fell by the wayside because of the enormous cost with public safety agencies throughout the country on all different types of communication systems, he said.

Meanwhile, Peach County’s new tower is expected to remove any gaps in communication coverage within the county, Doles said. He estimated the emergency communication penetration rate would be at 99 percent once everything is in place. He noted he never likes to say 100 percent but expects the coverage will be pretty close to it.

To contact writer Becky Purser, call 256-9559.

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