Pa. County Considering Elite Radio Network

July 19, 2013
The price tag could be as much as $20M, and could take years to complete.

July 19--The plan might take years to complete.

The price tag could be as much as $20 million.

But Erie County government is exploring a state-of-the-art, countywide radio network that would allow local emergency responders to communicate on common frequencies, to replace the fragmented system they now use.

Todd Geers, the county's public safety director, and County Executive Barry Grossman want Erie County Council to approve a $65,190 contract with MCM Consulting Group Inc., of McMurry, regarding what's known as a "Next Generation" radio system.

Geers said the county wants MCM to determine the best and most cost-effective way to implement the new system, taking into account the radio-related technology currently in place at the county's 911 center in Summit Township; the county's existing radio tower infrastructure; and innovations likely to be available within the next five years.

Geers estimated that such a system would likely cost between $12 million and $20 million.

"We've made multimillion-dollar investments at the county in equipment and software ... but the system that exists today for first responders is still a collection of independent radio systems that goes back to the day of 20 dispatch centers all having their own radio systems," Geers said.

"You still have coverage issues. There's dead spots," Geers continued. "We need a modern radio system that will be a benefit to the community and to the first responders, for their safety."

Erie County's emergency workers currently use separate radio frequencies to hear dispatched calls and to talk to their colleagues over the radio.

Splintered radio communications have been a major, longtime issue for many public safety workers nationwide. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks highlighted that problem, when firefighters could not hear police radio broadcasts warning that the north tower of the World Trade Center was about to collapse.

"We can patch different frequencies together with software, but it's just quicker, easier and better if you have a common frequency," Geers said.

West Ridge Fire Chief Dan Ouellet agreed that a lack of "interoperability" is a major problem for emergency responders when it comes to radio communications.

"Do we need this? Yes. But we've known this for a while," Ouellet said. "Does it take a consultant to figure it out? I don't know."

Geers added that state and/or federal grants or a long-term capital improvements bond could pay for the system.

Erie County Councilman Edward T. DiMattio Jr. said local officials have known for decades that emergency workers need a more reliable radio system.

DiMattio said he supports the study -- with one caveat.

"As long as we come up with a short-term fix, too," DiMattio said. "I've been told by numerous dispatchers their systems can just lock up. Firefighters talk about radio problems constantly. There's analog and digital pieces banded together that just don't go together."

KEVIN FLOWERS can be reached at 870-1693 or by e-mail. Follow him on Twitter at

Copyright 2013 - Erie Times-News, Pa.

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