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Jefferson County legislators agree to proceed to next phase of radio overhaul

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WATERTOWN — Jefferson County is moving forward with a plan to overhaul its aging public safety communications system.

The project, which is predicted to cost up to $15 million over a period of up to four years, will require the development of 12 to 15 sites for antenna towers that will support a new system intended to increase the portable communications abilities of first responders, law enforcement officers and public works officials.

Following a presentation from Lee R. Palmer and Mark A. Hoppe of Blue Wing Services Inc., a St. Paul, Minn., communications consultant, legislators agreed to seek a “trunked” digital system, which allows for more conversations across available channels.

According to the consultants, with a trunked system, 150 to 200 talk paths require only 10 to 12 channels, as opposed to a conventional system, which would require 150 to 200 channels.

And with a limited number of available frequencies in the area, a trunked system would be the most effective, the consultants said.

The system will operate in the UHF band and use a series of repeaters and communications towers to allow police, firefighters and other personnel to respond to each other using handheld radios.

Agreeing to go with the trunked system will allow Blue Wing to put together a request for proposal, according to Jefferson County Deputy Administrator Michael E. Kaskan.

The county’s current system, which was installed in the 1970s and updated sporadically over the years, is out of date and in dire need of replacement, according to comments made to legislators last year by Jefferson County Emergency Management director Joseph D. Plummer.

A study by Blue Wing found that the portable capabilities of agencies within the county fall well short of covering 50 percent of the county. The goal is to bring that coverage up to 97 percent, according to the consultants.

Jefferson County received a $6 million grant last year to help defray the costs of implementing the new system. The money to hire Blue Wing to diagnose problems within the current system and suggest solutions came from an $89,900 grant from the Department of Homeland Security.

The consultants will help shepherd the project through its various phases, according to Mr. Plummer.

“Blue Wing will be doing the oversight of that,” Mr. Plummer said. “If someone wants to charge us x, they can say, ‘This isn’t copacetic.’”

Mr. Plummer said the upgrade of a communications system is one of the largest capital projects many counties will ever tackle.

Madison County spent $14 million in 2009, Nassau County spent $42 million in 2005, Onondaga spent $32 million in 2007 and Oswego spent $15 million in 2011 to upgrade their systems, according to Mr. Palmer and Mr. Hoppe.

But the upgrade is vital, according to Mr. Plummer.

“The public does expect when they dial 911 in an emergency, somebody’s going to come, and this is how we communicate with responders,” Mr. Plummer said.

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