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9-1-1 Replacement Process & Grant Activities

Lapeer County Central Dispatch has not been slack concerning the need for a replacement system and grant processes. The process of seeking a replacement system and it’s requirements began in August of 2007 when Motorola notified us that the microwave and paging systems would no longer be supported under contract effective January 1, 2008 and repairs would be based upon parts availability. The site controllers which are the brains of the radio system would no longer be supported after July 1, 2009. The Radio Network Controller which runs the in-car police computers would not be supported after January 1, 2010. The original portable radios would not be supported after June 2010 and the original mobile radios would not be supported after September 2010.

Immediately upon notification from Motorola that the systems were starting to be obsolete LCCD began the process of hiring an independent consultant, free from any ties to any radio system company, to come in and evaluate our systems and give us a recommendation on what type of system to go to for replacement. That process started in August 2007, the same month Motorola gave us their notification.

Kimball & Associates was hired to be the consultant and came out several times to see the equipment, our operations, our needs and to meet with the members of the police, fire and EMS agencies which utilize our system. Kimball also met with the Authority and Technical Advisory Committees several times during the evaluation process. Their findings and recommendations were presented to the LCCD Authority & Technical Advisory Committees in March 2008 and then again to the County Board of Commissioners at a summer meeting in Goodland Township on July 17, 2008.

Kimball, based on their findings and our needs, recommended that LCCD seek to replace the aging system with the Michigan Public Safety Communications System (MPSCS). This was the most economically viable choice that would fulfill the needs of public safety in Lapeer County. The other choices presented inadequate coverage and safety concerns. The LCCD Technical Advisory Committee reviewed and explored the options presented by Kimball and in December 2008 came to a consensus on moving to the MPSCS as Kimball recommended.

In January 2009 a sub-committee was formed to explore funding options for the recommended replacement system. This committee included members of the LCCD Technical and Authority Board as well as officials from the County of Lapeer. Many ideas were explored and a county-wide millage was deemed the most economically feasible and fair way to fund a replacement system. This sub-committee was given a ballpark figure from Motorola on what a replacement system would cost. In June 2009 a budgetary quote was requested from Motorola and it was received in July 2009. By August 2009, LCCD brought this budgetary figure along with a business plan, coverage studies and other facts and figures to the County Board of Commissioners requesting a special election for November 2009.

There are grant monies available to public safety agencies but not all are available to LCCD. For example there is the Fire Act Grant with is exclusively available to fire departments. The COPS grant is also only for law enforcement agencies and not open to LCCD or other 9-1-1 centers. There are areas of Homeland Security money available to LCCD.

We have applied for federal grant money (stimulus), but one of the stipulations was that projects had to be “shovel ready” and ours was not at that stage at the time. We have been in direct contact with Congresswoman Millerʼs office who is watching for the next batch of available grants that we can apply for.

Grant money is distributed from the federal government to the individual states. In Michigan, that money is then sent down to regions where committeeʼs are formed to decide how to spend the money. Lapeer County is one of 14 counties in our region. Grant money is not sent directly to the county to be used for anything we want. Unfortunately, grant money is not like our individual savings accounts. No one can apply for grant money and then put it aside and save it up until a purchase is ready to be made. The rules regarding how grant money is used are very specific and do not allow for saving it up among many other things. When applying for any grant, one must have a specific item(s) already picked out, the details of it sent in with the grant application and how it is to be used. There usually comes with any approved grant request a 1 to 3 year audit trail as well.

In addition to that, grants are competitive, meaning, that all 14 counties in our region must compete with each other for money out of the same pot. Oneʼs counties needs are weighed against that of another counties needs, and point systems are developed to grade those needs. Once everything is worked out, the grant requests are then sent back to the state for approval. This is just a quick summary of how it works, and also know that these processes take months to years to complete before any county or agency would actually come into possession of their grant request. The cycles are always years behind.

No one entity can apply for such a large sum of money as to fund the needed replacement of our systems in any grant. Typically, at the federal level that kind of thing is called an ʻearmarkʼ. Earmarkʼs are not permitted in the grant process. The hundredʼs of millions of dollars available from the Department of Homeland Security can be misleading. That money is spread out across the country to the states as mentioned already and then down to the regions. Within the states and regions, the money is then divided up into subcommittee’s with different needs and objectives. Not all of the money goes to communications. For example our region is about finished up with the 2007 DHS grant for communications and it only had approximately $3 million dollars to spend between 14 counties. that is the largest sum of money to come though the region. Surcharge money is used to cover our operational costs. Currently it brings in just enough money to keep the doors open.

The grant money that has been awarded to Lapeer County over the years has gone to purchase many new hybrid radios capable of both analog and digital systems, new in-car computers for law enforcement, and bi-directional antennaʼs to bolster the MPSCS signal in the basement of the Emergency Operations Center. It has also purchased the countyʼs mobile command vehicle and equipped it with the necessary items for all disciplines of public safety to use in times of major local emergencies. All of these things have already supplanted the cost of the proposed replacement project.

Through the Emergency Management Department law enforcement obtained 44 radios in 2004 and 53 radios in 2005. The Warren Grant of 2004 garnered 19 mobile radios, 63 spare batteries, 53 remote speaker microphones, 54 chargers and 3 multi-chargers. Grants were also obtained through a regional medical committee in 2006 to purchase radios for EMS agencies (including medical first responder teams). Also in 2004 through the Department of Homeland Security, Lapeer County Central Dispatch acquired a grant for  a digital mapping system along with aerial photos of the whole county for a cost of $184,440.80.

Stimulus money for 2010 was applied for through Congresswoman Millers office in February 2010 for the full amount of the replacement system, though it is not expected to receive any or all of it.

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.