Study: Ky. county emergency communication system is obsolete
The study found some of the system's equipment to send and boost radio signals is no longer being manufactured or supported by manufacturers
By James Mayse
Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky.
DAVIESS COUNTY, Ky. — A recent study into communications problems experienced by Daviess County sheriff's deputies and firefighters found the county's communication system is obsolete in places and is in need of upgrades or replacement.
The study gives Daviess Fiscal Court some short-term fixes that can be performed at a relatively low cost. The report also lays out options for overhauling or replacing the system that will cost millions of dollars.
County officials will study the report and get answers to their questions from the report's authors while deciding how to proceed, Judge-Executive Al Mattingly said.
"The good news is we don't have to do something today or next week or next month," Mattingly said.
In March, Fiscal Court hired Trott Communications Group, a Texas firm, to study issues in the communications system. The sheriff's office, county fire department and the volunteer fire departments communicate with 911 dispatch on a VHF radio system, and officials with the departments have complained that messages often become garbled when dispatch is attempting to talk to a firefighter or deputy using a portable radio.
In an interview last year, Daviess County Fire Chief Dwane Smeathers said his department experiences communication problems "every day." City-county 911 director Paul Nave said the problems can be caused by atmospheric conditions, geography, foliage and by radio signals not being able to penetrate buildings to reach county responders on their portable radios.
The city is on a P25 digital communications system and does not experience similar problems.
Trott Communications officials conducted an extensive survey of the VHF system's infrastructure and radios and interviewed officials with the sheriff's office, the fire departments, emergency management, the detention center and dispatch.
"It's great information we got from experts," Nave said Saturday. The report gives elected officials "a solid foundation to make a decision on," Nave said. "I'm willing to do anything I can to assist in making a decision."
The study found some of the system's equipment to send and boost radio signals is no longer being manufactured or supported by manufacturers. Trott officials also found almost all of the portable radios, and the majority of voice pagers used by volunteer firefighters, are obsolete.
"Analysis of the Daviess County public safety communications system revealed that a majority of the infrastructure equipment is at end-of-life, with limited manufacturer support available," the report says. "User radios and fire pagers are similarly at end-of-life and due for replacement in the near term."
The report only looked at the system's equipment itself, instead of trying go gauge variables such as atmospheric conditions. "When the atmosphere changes, radios get better or worse," Nave said.
Local officials who were interviewed for the study found "numerous areas within the county where portable radio coverage is unreliable," most frequently around industrial areas by the river, by power and chemical plans, at the outer edges of the county, in Thurston and in Colony Mobile Home Park.
Firefighters said they need better communications while inside certain buildings, such as Kimberly-Clark and Owensboro Health Regional Hospital. The sheriff's department also reported needing better communications at the airport, the Holbrook Judicial Center, schools and Kimberly-Clark.
Communication problems were also reported by detention center officials, partly due to the construction of the buildings, but also because communications equipment there has limited range. The radio frequency used at the jail regularly experiences interference, the report says.
Sheriff's deputies and county firefighters talk to their counterparts in the city through a "Joint Ops" channel, but Emergency Management officials reported "there have been situations where communications through Joint Ops have failed to function properly when needed," the report says.
Trott officials provided several options and recommended some short-term fixes be done immediately. Those immediate fixes, which particularly focus on improving communications at the detention center and doing preventative maintenance throughout the system, "could be performed for less than $40,000," the report says.
But those fixes won't improve deficiencies in the system overall. Even if officials decide to simply keep the system as-is and replace equipment as it breaks, the estimated annual cost would be $65,000.
"I don't think that's an option," Mattingly said Friday. "I think that's throwing good money after bad."
How much it would cost to overhaul or replace the system depends. Upgrading the VHF system and purchasing new radios and pagers would cost between $3.742 million and $4.167 million, depending on whether officials also upgraded equipment at 911 dispatch as part of the project.
Going to a P25 digital system like the city's would cost between $5.305 million and $5.905 million, if the county built a digital system separate from the city's. But the report says "it may be possible to expand the existing city system to include countywide service," and says a "shared system approach could lead to significant cost savings."
County Commissioner Mike Koger said Saturday he had not yet read through the report and couldn't comment on its findings. But Fiscal Court is aware of the problem, Koger said.
"We have some spots in the county that are just dead spots" for communications, Koger said. "... It's something we are going to have to address." The costs of the options will be a factor as well, Koger said.
County Commissioner George Wathen couldn't be reached for comment Saturday. Commissioner Charlie Castlen said he was told part of the reason so many radios and pagers are obsolete is because they are no longer being updated and supported by their manufacturers.
Castlen said regardless of which option officials choose, "we are going to be spending some money."
"That's in part why we voted for the occupational tax increase," Castlen said. "We knew this was coming." In June, county commissioners approved a two-phase increase in the occupational tax rate, with the rate rising from its current 0.35% to 0.70% in January, and increasing to 1% in 2021.
Castlen said he was not ready to choose any of the options in the plan over another until the county gets more information from the report's authors.
Mattingly said commissions will hold a work session where they can question the authors.
"It probably created as many questions as it answers," Mattingly said. "We will have to wade through it and see what we need to do."
©2019 the Messenger-Inquirer (Owensboro, Ky.)