Report: Is West Virginia Radio System Set Up to Fail?

Reports say multi-million dollar system could fail during emergency situations.

Governor Joe Manchin announced the statewide radio project publicly at a news conference on December 20, 2006. The system consists of tower sites around the state that are linked together and allow any emergency personnel with a radio to contact any other agency in the state without any other special equipment. The towers are linked via microwave radio signals.

Erwin says the main server for the system is in Harrison County. This means each time any user in the state presses the talk button, their radio communicates to the central system in Harrison County, where the server assigns the radio a frequency and gives it clearance to transmit. This happens in a split second. He says there is a backup to this server in Kanawha County.

This setup is referred to as a trunk system. The concept of such a configuration has a set number of frequencies and assumes that not every agency using the system will transmit at the same time. Each agency doesn't have its own assigned, dedicated frequency like they do in the analog world. Instead, the system dynamically assigns a radio to a particular frequency every time a radio user presses the talk button.

The main benefits for agencies to move to this new system are: inter-agency communication and towers that are maintained by the state. Up until this point, each agency has had to service its own radio equipment, according to Erwin.

"It certainly benefits everyone to be able to talk to each other, especially during emergency situations," said Joe Thornton, Deputy Secretary for the West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety.

Thornton didn't immediately know of any mandates requiring local agencies to switch over to the state's interoperable system. Although, he said he believes there would be no issues with day-to-day operations on the system.

"I think it is important to stress our commitment and goal of ensuring emergency situations have effective and seamless communications and an interoperable system, while not flawless, certainly assists first responders and emergency officials statewide and across state borders with the ability to communicate in crises situations," said Thornton. "Communications is critical to the success of any and all operations and we certainly have no desire to implement a system that puts anybody's life in danger. Continued dialogue among all parties remains necessary as we move forward with the state's interoperable efforts."

Financially, digital radios cost nearly three times more than analog. That's been one of the biggest complaints about the system, according to Erwin. He says many volunteer firefighters have purchased their own analog radios for about $800, compared to at least $2,000 for digital.

A federal grant paid for each fire department in the county to have at least one radio, says Erwin. Future grants are expected to help provide more radios to emergency responders.

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