The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

February 25, 2013

Commission moves to deal with replacing outdated 911 systems

By Brian Graves, Staff Writer

Monday, February 25, 2013 — The Stanly County Commission met for their annual all-day retreat Friday and one subject rose to the top as a priority need for the county.

But, commissioners struggled with the urgent need versus the way to pay the expense.

Currently, the county’s emergency services are operating with a 40-year old communication system.

County Manager Andy Lucas said personnel are currently “patching together in a way that is a liability.”

“There really is not a good way to communicate with the 911 center in a mayday situation,” Lucas said.

He said in some cases officers have to contact someone else to contact the 911 center or are having to use different channels and radios to make the necessary communications.

Lucas said the county had four different options to replace the current outmoded system.

“There is the option of doing nothing, but that really is not an option,” Lucas said.

The first was a “Stand Alone VHF” system that would cost between $2.4 and $3 million.

However, Lucas said that system did not have the capacity to interoperate between agencies and was limited in frequency capabilities.

Another option was the state “VIPER” system for $8 million, but it holds the drawbacks of giving the state highway patrol priority use and there is a current backlog of more than 3,000 requests for radio ID registrations.

Partnering with Rowan County’s system would cost almost $10 million, but it is the most costly concerning capital outlays and there is no defined process for making upgrades.

Lucas reported the steering committee appointed by the commission is recommending using the USAI (Urban Area Security Initiatives) system.

It is priced at almost $9 million, but Lucas reported that system would address coverage and reliability concerns, would provide interoperability between agencies, have upgrade assurance, some costs shared by five counties, enhances grant leverage, and radios could be bought at discounted rates.

He added there would be a $90,000 per year programming and maintenance cost, but it would be shared by individual agencies within the county.

There would be a new yearly expense of $135,000 per year to be a part of the UASI network.

“We don’t pay anything now because we have our own system,” Lucas said.

No matter which system is eventually chosen, the county would have to have the same number of towers, build at least one new tower, make upgrades to the 911 radio console, equip for some microwave requirements and have building and site development expenses.

The same number of radios would have to be purchased and there would be equipment maintenence fees for all three systems of the county, municipalities and volunteer fire departments.

“Using UASI also gives us some purchasing power we would not have with the others,” Lucas said. “We would also have an appointee to the regional radio council that makes the decisions on upgrades and policies.”

Mecklenburg, Union, Cabarrus and Gaston Counties are currently part of the UASI system.

Brian Simpson, director of emergency services, said the current system is “analog” and the federal government is requiring that all such services be transferred to “digital” technology within the next few years.

The commissioners were unanimous in agreeing a new system was needed and in pursuing the UASI option, but hit the reality there were going to be major setup costs as well as ongoing expenses that will have to be paid for in some manner.

The county would incur a debt service on $8.5 million that would create a debt service cost of between $500,000 and $600,000 per year in addition to the $350,000 yearly operational expense.

“It’s important to know the infrastructure we are currently working with is 40-plus years old,” Simpson added. “Currently, I have a radio I use to talk to state-sponsored restores. With everything else, I use a cellphone.”

“Right now, if we have a nasty wreck at some intersection, those district commanders are carrying three radios to talk to medics, law enforcement and whoever,” Simpson said. “We’ve had these issues for many years and it’s not pleasant and the cost is awful and it’s only going to get worse.”

“What we currently have is a dying breed. We have patched it and added to, tried to upgrade over the years. But, is it going to get better? No.”

Commissioners gave Lucas and Simpson the green light to begin the process, up to the financing stage and also agreed to  consider the possibility of a referendum asking for a quarter-cent sales tax increase to help pay for the expense.

“Basically, it’s we have to do something now and it’s a ‘pay us now or pay us later’ situation,” said Commis­sioner Peter Ascuitto.

Commissioners also placed as top priorities for the new budget year a bigger push on economic development, airport, school expenses, and working on the ALCOA relicensing “until resolved.”