For the Hopewell Fire Department, communicating on its current radio system isn’t without its challenges, said Fire Chief Raymond Crombe.
Communicating from inside buildings, for instance, can be tricky.
“Even at our firehouse, the community college, Walmart or Lowe’s … we can’t hear radio communications at all or very poorly in the buildings,” Crombe said.
And when his department requests mutual aid from other departments to assist at a scene? When those departments arrive they may not be able to communicate with his crews on their radios.
“When we get to the scene and start working, we may go to a frequency that (the other department) does not have,” Crombe said.
But this is expected to change with the introduction of a new radio communication system in Ontario County.
The county is expected to go live Oct. 9 with a new system for its law enforcement agencies, fire departments, Emergency Medical Services agencies and highway departments, as well as for such departments as court security, probation and animal control, said Thomas Harvey, director of the county planning department. Most law enforcement agencies — including the sheriff’s office — will switch to the new system on that date, he said, estimating that more than half of the fire departments and some of the EMS agencies and highway departments will also have capability on the new system. Other agencies and departments will transition to the system at a later date.
Among them is the Hopewell Fire Department, which is expected to receive its radios within about eight weeks, Crombe said. He said he is hopeful the department’s radio communications will improve once it is on the new system.
“When we do operations in and around buildings, we'll be able to hear each other and not lose communications," Crombe said. "With the new system, we should all be able to use the same frequencies and talk with each other.”
‘A tool for coordination’
Harvey said the project began in 2006 with a study to determine how the county would comply with Federal Communications Commission mandates that essentially require everyone with radio licenses to reduce their bandwidth. He said the project was also an opportunity for the county to look at what direction it wanted to take with its radio communications in the future.
Currently, Harvey said, different emergency services have their own frequencies, and there are limitations in their ability to communicate directly with other agencies when needed.
As a result, the dispatchers at the Ontario County 9-1-1 Center have situations in which they have to relay critical information from one agency to another, said 911 Director Stephen DeChick.
Harvey said that in addition to being able to segregate communications, dispatchers will allow agencies to communicate with one another when needed. Agencies will be able to communicate using mobile radios in their vehicles and portable, handheld radios, as well as at control points throughout the county.
The system will be shared by all agencies, but they will have their own separate talk groups, which is essentially like having their own private frequencies, Harvey said. They will also be able to communicate directly with the 9-1-1 Center, and there will be capability for different public safety agencies to directly communicate with one another to better coordinate incident responses.
The 9-1-1 Center will also be able to broadcast to multiple talk groups to communicate, for example, weather information or details about an evacuation, DeChick said.
Jeff Harloff, director of the Ontario County Emergency Management Office, said that emergencies such as searches for a person can require multiple agencies — including law enforcement, fire departments and Emergency Medical Services agencies — to work together.
“This system will provide a tool for coordination,” he said.
Harloff said that while the current system can get overwhelmed when there are multiple incidents at once, the new system will be better suited for those situations.
“This communication system will allow for hopefully enough space to run multiple incidents simultaneously,” Harloff said.
Harloff said the new system will also have better coverage and will allow, for example, firefighters who are inside a building to communicate with those outside the building, an issue that he said has been problematic.
Ontario County Sheriff Philip Povero said the better coverage will mean improved safety for responders. With the current system, he said, there are too many times when officers are not heard when trying to communicate on their portable radios to, for example, call for backup or medical assistance.
“With the dangers law enforcement, firefighters, EMS personnel face in their daily duties, when these public servants yell for help, I want a radio system where their calls will be heard and appropriate assistance will be sent,” he said.
The cost of the project to the county is nearly $17 million, Harvey said. In addition to using some revenue from 911 surcharges, the county received about $700,000 in state grants for the project, including funds to purchase portable and mobile radios for the sheriff’s office.
Sam Casella, Canandaigua town supervisor and chair of the county Board of Supervisors’ Public Safety Committee, said the board recognized the importance of funding the project as being “much more than dollars and cents.”
“It was a very expensive project to undertake from the county standpoint,” Casella said.
But, he said, when residents of the county and people traveling through call 911, they depend on someone to respond, and the new radio system will improve communications.
Each municipality or agency is responsible for purchasing its own radio equipment to access the system, Harvey said, and many have received or are applying for grants. The cost of the portable radios can range from about $2,000 to $4,000, and the mobile radios cost around $5,000, he said.
Harloff said that two federal grants were secured for fire departments in Ontario County to assist them in purchasing the equipment. Twenty-three departments received funding through the grants, said Jason Wagner, the grant writer for both grants.
Among the departments that received funding were the Hopewell and Phelps fire departments and the North Side Fire Company in Geneva, which received $217,091 to purchase radios, as well as pagers.
Crombe said his department has purchased pagers and is in the process of ordering 38 portable, mobile and base station radios. In addition to the grant funding, the department also contributed about $50,000 out of its budget, which Crombe said the department has been saving for the past several years in anticipation of the switchover.
“Although it was a struggle — and a very expensive struggle — I am hopeful it will be worth it in the long run,” Crombe said. “Everyone has made sacrifices in their individual budget areas to break money free into the radio contingency fund.”
Preparing for the switch
Harvey said the majority of agencies and departments that will be using the new radio system when it switches over Oct. 9 have already installed some of the equipment and have been doing testing.
For agencies that are not ready to switch to the new system, there are contingency plans in place for them to stay on their current system, which the county has linked to the equivalent county-wide talk group on the new system. This will ensure they will be able to communicate with other agencies on the new system, Harvey said. All agencies are expected to be transitioned over to the new system by 2018, he said.
In addition to switching over the radio system, the 9-1-1 Center will also move to a new location Oct. 9 and will switch to a new 911 phone system. The county will also be transitioning around Nov. 1 to a new paging system for fire and ambulance services, which Harvey said will provide better coverage than the current system.
The new 9-1-1 Center was built in 2009 at the sheriff’s office’s facility at 74 Ontario St. in Canandaigua, Harvey said. The 4,100-square-foot, $2.2 million center is located on the third floor, compared to the current 1,400-square-foot center on the first floor.
DeChick said the new center will have more space for staff and will allow for additional staff to come in to operate, for example, during a big storm.
“The new 9-1-1 Center will provide better public safety for those who call 911 and who respond to 911 calls for emergency service,” he said.
DeChick said training is being completed this week on the new 911 phone system. The new system — an approximately $1.1 million project — will have better speed and connectivity and will better support communications with the deaf community and callers who do not speak English, he said.
The system will also be “Next Generation 9-1-1”-capable, meaning it would be able to support text and video messaging if and when the FCC puts in place the infrastructure to allow this, DeChick said.
Harvey said the new system will also allow Ontario County to share resources and backup capability with adjacent counties.
“We will see an evolution in the next few years where counties share their excess call-taking capability as a legitimate backup, instead of building fully functional individual backup facilities in each county,” he said. “For example, we’ve put a fiber optic connection in place with Monroe County already and will work with them as they upgrade their 9-1-1 equipment to provide better backup and capacity for both counties.”
Harvey said that as Oct. 9 nears, there are contingency plans in place for the changes. There will also be extra staff and the contractors and consultants on site that day and the days leading up to it, DeChick added.
“Public safety communication is something we absolutely, positively can’t afford to be without,” he said. “We have contingency plans to the contingency plans.”
DeChick added, “I’m looking very, very forward to the move. At the same time, there is a bit of anxiety. We are a family, and we are going to do this together.”