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Amateur Radio

HAM operators in Lapeer County work closely with the Lapeer County Emergency Management Department and each have a small office allocated to them in the basement of the 9-1-1 Center. No 9-1-1 funds have ever been used to support the HAM radio operator’s purchase of equipment. All the equipment they have has been purchased on their own or have received grant funds through the Emergency Management Department. Emergency Management is a separate department within the county.

Both the HAM operator’s and Emergency Management also work closely with with the 9-1-1 Center in disaster exercises. They train along side the public safety responders and provide a very limited scope of radio support as well. Because their numbers are so few, it is not possible for them to take on and operate the volume of calls and radio traffic for over 1,000 users of the trunked, commercial grade radio system that the County uses. They are great compliment to the system and can provide quality assistance in specialized situations.

For instance, most if not all, HAM operator’s are trained severe weather spotters and provide the National Weather Service in Pontiac with important and timely reports of the most severe weather that passes through the county. This information is then disseminated to the public safety responders where appropriate.

From Doug Donner (KC8ZCF), a member of the W8LAP HAM group in Lapeer County.

First, it must be noted that comparing the LC Amateur radio repeater system to the 911 system is probably like comparing a Piper Cub to a 747.  They both work, but are designed for entirely different missions.

  • While the W8LAP repeater only cost a “few thousand dollars”, it is made up of used police radios that were modified for use as a repeater.  New, purpose designed repeaters start at around $3000 to $5000, then there’s the support equipment required.  A complete system might run $12-$15K  for the repeater, towers, antenna, etc (just a guess on my part)
  • W8ALP operates on only (2) frequencies, an input and an output frequency.  More than (2) stations using the repeater at the same time have to share. (could you imagine 911 Dispatch, an EMS unit, and a LEIN check talking at the same time????)
  • Across the county coverage?  A handheld radio @ 5 watts in Almont can’t talk to someone over the repeater.  Imlay city can be spotty at best.  It requires a mobile rig @ 50 watts to make the trip.  This could be partially because of the tower location and ground elevation.
  • Prior to the addition of another repeater in North Branch, communications with the North end of the county was very poor.  The Lapeer Ham club did not set-up this system.  It was set-up by a group of hams from NB and is basically on loan to the club.
  • E911 probably gets more use in a few hours that the W8LAP does in a year.  Ham repeaters are typically not rated for that much transmitting.
  • The W8LAP repeater system can’t do the following:
    • Pinpoint the location of a 911 hang-up call
    • Transmit data to/ from vehicles in the field by way of MDT.  Note, Ham radio CAN do this, but can’t talk at the same time on the same frequency.  Therefore, data transmission needs a different frequency and additional equipment.
    • Give directions, cross streets, etc to users in the field
  • LCARA doesn’t have 50 members and hasn’t in quite a few years…..

Hype

We’ve heard that some believe Lapeer County was “sold a bill of goods” regarding our current radio system. This is simply not true. When our current system was built in 1996-97, it was the best type of system available at the time, just as Microsoft Windows 95 was the best operating system available at the time. The system was designed and proposed to deliver adequate radio and pager coverage for the whole county. Five tower sites were to be built to achieve this. However, due to budget constraints and the desire to keep the overall system cost down, two towers were cut from the design. With three towers, coverage was satisfactory in most parts of the county, but left certain areas lacking in coverage.

The County wasn’t sold a system that couldn’t deliver what was promised, but made a conscience decision to save tax dollars while providing an adequate level of coverage overall. As the years went by it was clearly apparent that the cost saving measure sacrificed too much of the quality of the system.

This lack of quality is set to be corrected with a replacement system by adding the necessary tower sites in the proper locations to provide the proper and acceptable level of coverage to all areas of the county. This is the second major reason for a need to replace the current system. The first reason being it is beyond its anticipated life expectancy and a major breakdown could occur without the parts-support the manufacturer has provided for many years.

It is not prudent to expect a company to support any particular product they make forever. Is anyone still using an old analog bag phone as their cellular phone? If there is, do you expect the phone manufacturer to support it with parts and upgrades? How many companies are using Model T’s to support their company operations today? If so, how easy is it to find parts to repair it when it does break down? How much are those parts going to cost compared to parts for a more contemporary vehicle?

What are other counties using?

As Lapeer County seeks to make a move to join the MPSCS, several of our neighbor’s have already made the move.

Macomb, St. Clair, Saginaw, Shiawassee & Genesee Counties have already migrated to the MPSCS leaving behind their antiquated analog systems. Bay County is in the process of making the switch to the MPSCS while Tuscola, Sanilac and Huron Counties are seeking to move to the MPSCS just as Lapeer County is.

Oakland County started to build their own digital radio system in 2002 and due to the many PSAPs in the county and the original company they hired to build their system being bought out a couple of times, the system is not yet fully online.

Just as cell phones and television have changed to digital so are the commercial manufacturers of public safety radio systems. Even broadcast radio is starting to change to digital with the option of HD radio.

As mentioned in another post, the need for the radio system isn’t a matter of “going digital,” but rather “in need of replacement.” A digital system is just what is available on the market now.

As certain components are no longer supported by the manufacturer, parts will be difficult at times to come by. Those parts that can be found aren’t new parts; they’re used and not even refurbished in many cases. Lapeer County received several vehicle radio modems from Saginaw County for free recently and they are older models than the ones Lapeer is using. Because they’re older than our system, we’ve secured a grant to purchase a firmware upgrade to bring them to the version we’re using. Once that is finished, we’ll test the VRM’s to see which ones will work and which ones won’t. The working ones will be handed over to departments in Lapeer County that have need of them.

As the need for parts comes along, the more that ends up breaking down, the more out of pocket expenses we’ll incur. There will come a point that the system will start to “nickel & dime us to death.”

It has been said that 95% of 9-1-1 centers are analog based. While that is likely true, those analog systems are getting very old just as Lapeer County’s is. When those centers go to replace their analog systems, they will be purchasing a digital one.

Digital System or Replacement System?

There is a lot of concern that the bid for a new system at Lapeer County 9-1-1 was for the purpose of going digital. This is not the case at all. Digital is quite irrelevant in the matter as the need is for a replacement radio system. A digital system was chosen for two reasons. Number 1, no manufacturer builds analog public safety systems anymore. Number 2, the MPSCS was chosen as the most economical and safe choice and it just happens to be a digital system.

The MPSCS is a state-wide public safety radio system in Michigan and serves over 50,000 users. The level of interoperability provided by this system is unmatched world-wide. It only makes sense to join the system to have that level of interoperability available. As our society becomes less localized and more regional, we need to be able to communicate with our neighboring counties as we often send our responders outside our county to assist other agencies in major events.

The current 14 year old radio system is now beyond it’s anticipated life expectancy and the major component systems of it are no longer being supported by the manufacturer. If these components break down, the manufacturer cannot guarantee that new parts will be available. If the parts happen to be available, they are not covered under the maintenance contract and the cost of the parts will be “out of pocket”. If the manufacturer doesn’t have the parts available, Lapeer County 9-1-1 must search for third-party companies who sell the parts as used/refurbished.

2010 Election Campaign

Lapeer County 9-1-1 will be campaigning throughout 2010 leading up to the November general election in an effort to secure voter approval for a replacement of it’s radio system and other antiquated systems.

These systems are critical to the operation of public safety in Lapeer County. They are life-lines for the citizens and for law enforcement, fire service and EMS personnel. On average Lapeer County 9-1-1 handles over 112,000 emergency and non-emergency calls for service annually.

This blog will be utilized to assist in disseminating information to the public about the critical need for continued operations and replacement needs.