Lyon County and the City of Emporia are working with the 911 Board and others to update the current dispatch radio systems (UHF, VHF and 800 MHz). They have invested about a year and a half of needs assessments, research and planning and look toward another year or so of finalizing proposals and implementing the new system.
“Communication is the foundation of public safety,” Lyon County Emergency Manager Jarrod Fell said.
There have been local discussions about emergency personnel’s preference for the Kansas Statewide Interoperable Communications System (KSICS) through Motorola over a stand-alone system, such as Harris. The 911 Board did not pursue bids for different systems and are drawn to the interoperability of the state system. Eleven counties are on the state system, all of which are able to be in communication with one another.
“We’ve asked a lot of questions of our partners. We’ve asked a lot of questions of Jason Bryant and his team at the state. I want people to understand that no decision we made wasn’t made without really researching,” 911 Director Roxanne Van Gundy said.
Ka-Comm. representatives Scott and Craig Fischer expressed concern about the board not getting bids from different providers.
“If you go to a bid situation, more than likely, that price might change that was quoted, because it is a bid situation, so you might save the city and county some money,” Scott Fischer said.
Current coverage spans about 60 percent in areas on operational frequencies; the state system would increase coverage to 95 percent.
Lyon County has three towers — Hatcher Street Tower (Emporia), North Tower (Highway 56 and Northern Heights) and South Tower (K-99 Road 40). There is a state tower near the highway with which Lyon County can utilize. There are 71 state system towers across Kansas.
Riley County Emergency Manager Pat Collins said Riley County experienced a similar update process recently. Prior to the update, Collins said Riley County had slightly more than half coverage and four communications. They brought in a consultant and considered bids from Harris and Motorola. Motorola bid 12 sites to get 96 percent coverage, but the county would have had to pay for tower manufacture. Harris’ bid included seven existing towers, which is 14 talk paths on the phase two system and a more cost-effective option.
“There were some (older Harris) systems that didn’t do well,” Collins said about concerns brought up during the bid process. “There was one in Las Vegas … that didn’t perform well. With their new phase two system, they’re more than capable of handling all of the requirements we have and meeting our capabilities for the next 10-15 years.”
Harris guaranteed Riley County 96 percent coverage, and, if the criteria is not met, Harris will add towers until they reach that 96 percent coverage, at no extra cost. Sixty buildings and the streets are umbrellaed under the coverage for Riley County.
A concern the Fischers expressed to Lyon County was the ineffectiveness of indoor radio coverage through the state system. Van Gundy said they took indoor coverage into consideration and are confident in the state system’s ability to cover buildings.
Collins also said Riley County was given the option to link their towers to the state system, though “the state is telling us when and what we can put on it, and if they ever start charging on that system, then they tell us what we’re going to pay, and we didn’t like the unknowns.” Riley County has offered the use of their systems for other counties that use Harris, Collins said. Riley County bonded the system update, so taxpayers would not have to pay as much immediately.
Collins said he thinks the state system works well for personnel who are on the highways but that it did not fit what Riley County needed.
Scott Fischer said Ka-Comm. was originally brought to Emporia to introduce the radio system Lyon County is using.
Ka-Comm. has provided Riley and McPherson counties with Harris systems. They have also provided Harris systems in Norman and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Scott Fischer said they have received very positive feedback from counties with live Harris systems, so far.
“I really haven’t seen any drawbacks with going with phase two,” Scott Fischer said.
The 911 Board considered hiring a consultant but chose to do the legwork themselves, both to save money and to learn as much as possible about radio systems.
“How much better is it to have your local people gain that knowledge and work through those processes to have that knowledge within your own community,” Fell said about the board’s decision to not hire a consultant.
“My concern was that they weren’t using consultants but they were just purchasing directly from a quote from Motorola on that,” Scott Fischer said. “What I wanted to offer them was that maybe they should get in touch with a consultant … not trying to say that the city and county doesn’t have the experience they need to purchase a system like that.”
“Plus, that consultant makes sure that the manufacturer follows everything to a T and they guarantee a coverage, and if that coverage isn’t met, then the consultant makes sure they get what they bid,” he said. “To me, it’s a safeguard for the city and county to go through the consultant.”
For places that already have towers in their county, Motorola is able to link to pre-existing towers, a cost-effective option.
“The state has already paid for infrastructure, meaning cores,” Fell said. “There are two cores throughout the state … If we were to go and buy our own stand-alone radio system, we would have to buy a core.” Fell said cores are about $1 million, not including the price of maintenance.
Utilizing available infrastructure saves money. Lyon County will need updated towers. Once the system is live, Motorola will inform them of which updates are necessary. They will also need a new building and backup generator at both of the tower sites and the Westar site. The Hatcher Street tower already has a building and backup generator.
One thing Van Gundy said she appreciates about Motorola updates is the requirement to do updates when everyone on the state system does updates, rather than having to “fight for updates.” Fell said they expect more updates will be necessary later on but that it is expected with any technology updates.
A major point of the discussion is the advantages and disadvantages of phase one radios and phase two radios.
Phase two radios are state of the art and allow for twice as many channels as phase one radios.
The state system uses phase one radios. Fell said the state system will triple their channel capacity anyway, which satisfies Lyon County’s needs.
Van Gundy said Motorola is capable of updating the state system to phase two, if that is what the state decides.
Motorola designed the state system and can only be connected to stand-alone servers that have an ISSI attachment.
Riley and McPherson counties have implemented Harris systems and have not purchased the attachments. Even with the attachment, Fell said once a phase two radio connects to a phase one tower, it functions as a phase one radio.
“If we could get everyone on the same system, everybody talking to each other on the same vain, that’s going to open up a whole lot of doors for us, even inside our city,” Van Gundy said.
“We don’t want the taxpayers to feel like we’re spending their money in a way that doesn’t benefit the community. We’re not asking for the latest, greatest widget; we’re asking for a tool to keep our responders safe and to keep our community safe and to provide the best public safety response possible,” Fell said.
After site inspections, the 911 Board will present a final proposal to Lyon County Commissioners within the next couple of months. They expect the project will take about a year from when the final proposal is signed.
Van Gundy said they look forward to having “more capability to manage our responders.”
“We are (currently) overwhelming dispatch, and with short staffing that public safety as a whole is facing,” Fell said. “The more we can reduce those impacts on dispatch, the more they can do their job efficiently.”
“The better we can improve communication ... the better we are overall in providing those services,” Fell said.