It’s a cumbersome acronym for a smoother way to communicate: The Central Georgia Interoperable Regional Radio System covers Macon-Bibb, Monroe and now Peach counties, putting emergency services in those places on the same radio network.
That offers more than just convenience, Macon-Bibb Fire Chief Marvin Riggins said. He’s been concerned for some time about poor radio reception in the southwest part of the county.
Macon-Bibb’s radio system flows through only three big towers, but with Peach County adding its own towers to the network, firefighters won’t have to worry about their voices fading out while they’re trying to extinguish fires in that area, Riggins said.
“Hopefully we can continue to expand our footprint to make our coverage even better,” he said.
A memorandum of understanding between counties governs the radio network. It’s modeled on Savannah’s, which covers seven counties. Monroe County was the first to join Macon-Bibb, but Peach County Commission Chairman Melvin Walker added his signature May 13. Macon-Bibb Mayor Robert Reichert signed the inclusion of Peach County on July 23.
The intention is to get as many surrounding counties as possible to join the network, creating a “public safety corridor” of interlinked emergency services particularly along Interstates 16 and 75.
Riggins said he’s talked with neighboring fire chiefs, with all of whom Macon-Bibb County has mutual aid agreements.
“They all like the concept of regionalization,” he said. “If we’re able to seamlessly talk with one another, that just makes our lives a lot better.”
Public safety officials in Monroe and Peach agreed.
“I think the idea of having a regional system is going to be a huge benefit for law enforcement all over Middle Georgia,” Monroe Sheriff John Cary Bittick said. “The more people on it, the bigger the benefit’s going to be for everybody.”
Monroe County deputies and firefighters will use the new system -- soon, he said.
“Our part of the system is not up yet,” Bittick said. The county is having radios installed in vehicles, but the required towers and repeater stations aren’t in place.
“It’s all on order, but it hasn’t been installed yet.”
He said Bibb and Monroe sheriff’s offices have a long history of working well together, but his collaboration with Bibb Sheriff David Davis on the radio system has been particularly enjoyable.
Peach County won’t have to buy much in the way of equipment, but it will have a transition to make, said Peach Fire Chief Jeff Doles.
“We’ve already got an 800 (MHz) system, and we’re just tying into Macon-Bibb,” he said. The county bought its 800 MHz system several years ago, but found it too expensive then to make the full changeover from a different system, Doles said. But the 800 MHz system was kept precisely so it could link with other counties, he said. Now Peach County is hoping for funding to make a wholesale transition.
“We’re currently tied in with Houston, but the Bibb County (partnership) -- if we get a grant -- will give us more flexibility,” Doles said.
The county’s current radio system will stay as a backup, but the 800 MHz tie-in will allow Peach’s public safety personnel to communicate better, “roaming” onto surrounding systems when necessary, he said.
“It’s not something we use every day, but when we need it, it’s hard to do without it,” Doles said.
BETTER SHOT AT FEDERAL FUNDS
In August 2012, the city of Macon approved buying an all-digital 800 MHz radio system from Harris Corp. RF Communications for $7.7 million. The purchase was funded by special purpose local option sales tax money. It replaced a system inherited from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, prone to breakdowns and for which parts were increasingly hard to find.
The old system is now used by Macon-Bibb Public Works and other departments. The new radios arrived in mid-2013, and Mayor Robert Reichert pushed for it to be fully implemented within a year. The first of more than 1,000 new radios went to firefighters, then to sheriff’s deputies and other emergency workers.
“What we have is strong enough for other people to join,” said Stephen Masteller, information technology director for Macon-Bibb. “The idea behind it is to essentially provide a cost-effective public safety umbrella for the mid-Georgia region.”
The memorandum of understanding says each county that joins will be responsible for buying its own accessories, such as local towers and radios. Within two years, each new member must help share the cost of maintaining the core of the system, located in Macon-Bibb. Annual maintenance costs will likely be distributed proportionately, based on how many radios each county runs on the new system, the agreement says.
Robert Smith, government services specialist at the Middle Georgia Regional Commission, has estimated that the total expansion cost will be about $1.7 million, if the system is to cover all surrounding counties. But some of that could come from federal grants.
Bittick said Monroe County will probably add the annual maintenance costs to its budget. Doles, as indicated, said Peach County is seeking a grant for at least the initial cost.
An expanded network does improve the chances of getting federal help, Masteller said. Federal officials are more likely to approve grants for a multicounty network, and local governments can combine their clout in applying, he said.
Each member county is expected to appoint representatives to a governing panel, according to the memorandum of understanding. That body has already met once, and a second quarterly meeting has been scheduled.
“The concept behind it is that you have multiple parties from each county representing that county,” he said. Elected officials, public safety and finance staff, and technical personnel should be included, enabling quick decisions by considering all aspects of issues on the spot, Masteller said.
Houston County, considering a replacement for its own emergency radio network, has been “extended an invitation” to the next meeting, he said.
Riggins said firefighters are still learning the new system’s capabilities, but he’s glad to have one that’s reliable. A multicounty network will become a model for other communities to emulate, he said, raising hopes of a system that will eventually let emergency services communicate statewide.
To contact writer Jim Gaines, call 744-4489.