New radios expand emergency-service horizons

jgaines@macon.comDecember 1, 2013 

About six months ago, the Macon-Bibb County Fire Department got new radios, the first tangible part of a major upgrade to local emergency communications.

The new handsets took some getting used to, but minor problems were quickly addressed, said Sgt. Andy Tye, driver of Engine No. 2 at the Monroe Street fire station.

“It all went pretty smoothly,” he said.

Tye said he didn’t mind the old system but knew the need for a new one, which features clearer sound on the radios.

One feature is an emergency button that, once pressed by a firefighter in a dangerous spot, focuses all radio traffic on that person.

“That could be a very valuable function,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll never have to use it, but if we do, it’s there.”

Most of the new system’s components have yet to be installed. The fire department’s new mobile radios are running on the old Motorola framework, but that’s soon to be replaced. And when new computer-aided dispatch software for public safety workers is installed, the radio system will be able to handle not just voice traffic but data, sending detailed information to police and firefighters while filling out many records automatically.

The new system offers another possibility as well: expanding its network to surrounding counties, not only increasing the range but letting Macon-Bibb emergency services talk to their counterparts elsewhere.

Longtime need

When Stephen Masteller became head of the city’s Information Technology Department four years ago, during his first week Communications Manager Joe Taylor sat down with him to talk about the risky state of the emergency radio system, Masteller said.

The Motorola system -- inherited from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics -- was great for its time, Taylor said. But by 2009 parts were failing frequently, and many of those parts couldn’t be replaced.

The special purpose local option sales tax voters passed in November 2011 provided a rare opportunity to replace the analog radio system entirely, Masteller said. The referendum included $8 million for that purpose, and in August 2012 the city approved buying an all-digital 800-megahertz system from Harris Corp. RF Communications for $7.7 million.

The new system has two “brains” in different locations, which constantly signal each other, Masteller said. If one doesn’t respond, the other automatically takes over all functions. That not only means there’s never a lapse in service, but it keeps IT personnel safer since they won’t have to rush out in bad weather to restart a failed system, he said.

In late July, the Harris system’s main components were put together in a warehouse and tested under various scenarios to make sure it all worked, Taylor said. It did and will be tested again once installed, before public-safety communications are transferred onto it, he said.

“There’s at least two to three dozen different pieces of hardware that makes up this system,” Taylor said. “That being said, it’s a third of (the size) what the old system is.”

Police officers have received some of the new radios, but the fire department was the first to be fully equipped. More of the radios will go to emergency management and medical personnel. Altogether that’s more than 1,000 new radios, Taylor said.

The changeover for all departments normally would take two or three years, but the impending merger of Macon and Bibb County governments has increased that pace, Masteller said.

“There is a push by the mayor to have this done by as close to a year as possible,” he said. IT personnel agreed they could do it, and that’s pretty much on track, Masteller said.

The old system will remain in use by the Public Works Department and other agencies but not by public-safety workers, Masteller said.

“We never intended, ever, to cast off the Motorola system,” he said.

More functions

As part of the government merger, the task force working on consolidation recommended buying a public-safety software package from New World Systems that can send out data over the radio network through a computer-aided dispatch system. The system will take about a year to fully install, city interim Chief Administrative Officer Dale Walker said.

City and county governments agreed to the software system purchase in November. It’s to cost about $1.9 million up front, plus an additional $1.1 million during the next few years. The money will come from a public-safety category in the 2011 SPLOST.

When it’s put into place, police and firefighters with in-vehicle data terminals can get a variety of information on each call, such as previous arrests or building layouts, while automatically entering new information into various record systems for the courts and jail.

The fire department now has detailed information -- floor plans, exits, water systems, etc. -- on commercial buildings countywide, but it’s on paper, Fire Chief Marvin Riggins said. That can be digitized and sent to fire scenes over the new radio system. But doing so will require data terminals to be installed in all fire trucks, Riggins said. Not all trucks have those, but he expects the fire department will be the first agency to be fully equipped.

Riggins hopes the new data system will be fully in place the next time the county is evaluated for fire-insurance rate purchases. The department’s ability to get immediate information on emergency scenes has a big impact on property owners’ fire-insurance rates, he said.

“I’m glad we have it. Thank God for the SPLOST, thank God for our community being willing to pay for that,” Riggins said.

Wider network

Macon-Bibb County emergency services have mutual-aid agreements with all surrounding counties, but the old radio system doesn’t extend much beyond the county line, Riggins said. Also, police and firefighters in those other counties don’t necessarily use the same radio frequencies, so the departments can’t talk to each other, he said.

The new system could change that. In fact, talks are already underway through the Middle Georgia Regional Commission about expanding the network to create a region-wide umbrella of intercommunication.

Eventually, enough other agencies could link in to create a “public safety corridor” of continuous communication from Macon all the way down Interstate 16 to Savannah, Masteller said.

Robert Smith, government services specialist at the regional commission, said he’s been talking for several months with officials in Crawford, Jones, Monroe and Peach counties, but it started even before his involvement. Informal participation agreements from those counties state their intent to sign onto the network, he said.

The estimated total cost for the system to expand to cover those surrounding counties: about $1.7 million, Smith said. Then participants would contribute annually to the system’s maintenance costs, probably based proportionately on how many users it has in each county, he said.

Smith said he knows the up-front cost is a lot for any county and is too much for the smaller counties to afford. So he’s working on an application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant program.

That would provide the bulk of the needed funding. The idea’s success likely hinges on getting the federal money, Smith said.

“This application is due Dec. 6,” he said. “We feel pretty good about it, as one of FEMA’s emphases this year is regional communication projects.”

Separately, Houston County is looking to upgrade its 911 system. There has been some discussion of doing that by joining Macon’s new radio system, even to the point of meeting with Bibb and Monroe County officials about the proposed mutual network. But a decision is a long way off, Commission Chairman Tommy Stalnaker said.

“That’s still being evaluated as far as we’re concerned,” he said. “There has been no decision made on the type of upgrades or anything else at this point in time. I think everybody sees the need of being able to communicate, and there’s more than one way to do it.”

To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.

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