Bibb radio system on last legs; cash to replace it hard to come by

A countywide radio system that helps fight fires, catch burglars and intervene in heart attacks is failing, slowing emergency workers who are trying to help people. Parts of the radio system are broken about 30 percent of the time, officials said.

Complete system failures are rare, said Stephen Masteller, Macon’s director of information technology. But smaller breaks happen quite regularly, causing police and firefighters to lose radio channels or communication.

“Basically, 30 percent of the time the system has some issue that causes a loss in operational functionality,” Masteller wrote in an e-mail.

Users of the system include Macon police, Bibb County deputies, Macon-Bibb firefighters, and The Medical Center of Central Georgia ambulance crews, as well as staff in public works, parks and recreation and other departments.

Replacing the system would cost millions, and that kind of outlay during tight economic times is a challenge.

Bibb County Chief Deputy David Davis compares the 800-megahertz radio system, now about 11 years old, to a light bulb that’s clearly on its last legs.

“When you see it flickering, you know it’s going to go out,” he said. “We’re seeing the flickering light bulb.”

People needing help have no problem calling into 911. But the radio system becomes important after 911 takes the call, because dispatchers use the radio system to send out police cars, fire trucks and other crews.

More than a year ago, Macon Mayor Robert Reichert told The Telegraph that the equipment was “literally coming to pieces” and that officials would look for fixes. But a 911 advisory committee is only now getting re-established and may meet in a few weeks, Masteller said.

In the past year, the system has completely failed twice, for about an hour each time, Masteller said. Logs show that the most recent problems were a major brownout Oct. 1, radio coverage problems Aug. 13 and another brownout Aug. 3.

But the most common failures aren’t as damaging. Sometimes, the radio system will lose some, but not all, of the channels. The system is designed to keep working even after some pieces of it break.

Davis said city and county employees have been great about hunting down spare parts and working around problems.

“Our redundancy has been greatly reduced by the lack of spare parts and because of the age of the system,” he said.

Davis has begun asking county commissioners for money toward a $100,000 plan to install older, less-capable VHF radios as a partial backup. “The VHF system is just a bare-bones, maybe one- or two-channel system that we can get up fairly quickly, fairly economically, to at least weather us through some catastrophic failure,” Davis said.

Sheriff’s dispatchers already have used deputies’ official and personal cell phones to keep in touch, Davis said. During one outage, a deputy in the field became a dispatcher himself, using the push-to-talk feature on a cell phone to relay messages to other deputies.

In all, agencies may use a combination of cell phones, regular telephone lines and in-vehicle computer systems to keep in touch.

Davis and Reichert spokesman Andrew Blascovich said they didn’t know of problems in which the radio system had caused significant delays with critical calls.

The radio system was bought used after the 1996 Olympics.

City officials predict a replacement will cost $6 million to $12 million, and they don’t know where the money would come from. A possible source is a special-purpose, local option sales tax, which voters might consider in July.

To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.