A consultant is recommending a Luzerne County 911 emergency radio communications system overhaul and upgrade that would cost an estimated $19.26 million and take several years to complete.
Michael C. McGrady, of MCM Consulting Group, is presenting the proposal at several public sessions this week, including two held at the Hughestown Fire Department Monday. The county hired the McMurray, Pennsylvania-based company for $69,000 in April 2015 to complete the radio system needs assessment and strategic plan.
McGrady presented a long list of reasons the county should convert from an aging analog radio system to a new “P25 Phase II” designed digital one.
For starters, most of the county’s radio transmitters and receivers, which allow police and emergency responders to exchange messages, will become obsolete in 2020, he said.
“As of 2020, you’ll be on your own,” he said, referring to support assistance and the availability of replacement parts. “Things have really changed over the last 20 years.”
The current system also is a patchwork plagued with interference and inconsistent or no radio coverage in some spots, McGrady said.
“Luzerne County does not have a countywide radio system,” he said. “It has a quilt work of systems cobbled together to make up the present system.”
Several counties have updated to digital systems in recent years, including Bucks and Berks, he said. Erie County is about to launch its conversion, he said.
The project has not been discussed or approved by the county council, which will be expected to come up with the funding.
The county administration has asked the council to approve a capital plan that includes $850,000 to fund an initial phase that will improve and make the current radio system workable for several years as options and funding are explored.
Included in the first phase would be work to address “significant grounding and maintenance issues” at county radio sites, he said.
The council must approve a capital plan by Sept. 1.
County officials have been hesitant to authorize additional capital projects because they have about $3.5 million in past-borrowed funds left and don’t expect the county will be in a position to borrow more for many years. The county owes $351 million through 2030.
McGrady said he was meeting with emergency responders first because they are directly impacted, and he urged them to express support for the project to county officials. He said he expects to meet with the county council in the near future to discuss the plan, which will be posted on the county website at www.luzernecounty.org.
MCM based its recommendations largely on inspections of all county towers and equipment and interviews of representatives of 121 police, fire and emergency service agencies.
The proposed project involves the replacement of some transmission lines and antennas and the addition of new towers to improve radio coverage in Lehman Township, White Haven and the area of Ricketts Glen State Park.
It also calls for filtering to block out interference, reducing police and fire coverage zones to free up more radio frequencies and installation of security equipment at tower sites.
The new digital system is designed to provide 95 percent portable radio coverage, both outside and inside structures, he said.
Emergency responders throughout the county complained about poor radio coverage inside buildings, McGrady said.
“Some people have to use cell phones because their radios don’t work, and that’s not acceptable,” he told several area firefighters and medical responders Monday afternoon.
One county police department must regularly get off its emergency radio channel because it picks up interference from a department in another county, he said.
McGrady said his company already has pinpointed and helped the county administration crack down on outside entities that operate antennas on county radio towers.
These entities — he did not specify the number — have started paying the county $750 per month in rent, he said. The county also made it clear their antennas will be shut down if they don’t filter out interference with emergency communications, which has occurred in the past, he said.