But the people in charge of the finances will.
Beginning April 1, the agencies in Calhoun and Talladega counties that use the 800-megahertz radios to communicate will begin to pay for that use. For the past 14 years, millions of federal dollars have sustained the system. A benefit of the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program, the radio system was set up as a precaution against the dangers of Anniston’s chemical weapons storage.
With the weapons destroyed, that threat is gone. And in 14 days, the federal money is, too.
Despite that, the need for the high-tech radio system remains, officials say. Last April’s tornado provided proof that large-scale disasters requiring coordination among multiple public safety agencies don’t just come in chemical form.
And in the devastating aftermath, the radio system proved its worth, officials say.
“All of our public safety groups need to have a way to communicate that’s interoperable, quick and readily available,” said Deborah Gaither, director of Talladega County’s Emergency Management Agency. “This system has worked for many, many years.”
Currently, the respective commissions in Calhoun and Talladega counties manage the 800-MHz system using the CSEPP money to support it.
Two changes come April 1: First, radio users will begin to pay. Second, a new local board will assume control of the system. The board was approved by the state Legislature last spring and soon after that, the counties’ commissions elected the board members — all representatives from the agencies that will use the system.
Now all that’s left is the transfer.
But that’s a big step — requiring the inventory, insurance and hand-over of 14 radio towers, some 5,500 portable radios and dozens of microwave antennae, computers and generators. The process has required both attention to minute detail and an eye for the big picture of interagency communication, officials said.
The new board has been cooperating with the EMAs, commissions and public safety agencies in the counties — as well as with state and federal emergency response leaders — to hammer out the technicalities.
“What I hope happens April 1 is that it’s seamless,” said Mike Fincher, chairman of the Alabama Regional Communications System. “The operation of the system never changes other than the users begin to get an invoice.”
That invoice won’t be cheap.
Officials estimate the 800-MHz system will cost $600,000 a year. Some 3,200 users from a variety of organizations have committed to pay for the system, said Kevin Jenkins, an employee of the Calhoun County EMA who will soon be the administrator for the new board. Broken down, those on board will pay $22.50 per radio per month.
For example, a mid-sized agency like the Jacksonville Police Department will have 50 radios, meaning it will pay $13,500 per year to stay on the system.
Meanwhile, a larger organization such as Anniston’s department will pay around $48,500 to keep its 180 radios.
The price per radio is more than some smaller agencies can afford.
While some of the volunteer fire departments in Calhoun County will pay for two or three radios for their firefighters to share, others are abandoning the 800-MHz system, said Guy Shew, a firefighter for Webster’s Chapel’s volunteer department.
“It’s a good system, but it’s too expensive for some of us,” said Shew, who recently retired as the president of the Calhoun County Association of Volunteer Firefighters.
Piedmont police Chief Steven Tidwell said agencies in his city only use the 800-MHz system as a secondary mode of communication. As as result, the chief doesn’t see the need to pay $8,000 a year to keep the department’s 30 radios.
History on the radio
The 800-MHz system in Calhoun and Talladega counties is the “Cadillac” of radio systems, according to most other local, state and federal officials. The 14-towered system was built to provide radio users with the ability to talk to each other — on a number of different channels — while they were anywhere within the 1,300 square miles of the two counties.
In anticipation of CSEPP’s end, EMA leaders in Calhoun and Talladega counties called that reliability vital in any number of situations. It helps police from different agencies assist each other in high-speed chases, allows the Highway Department to quickly alert law enforcement and schools about a bad wreck or facilitates the cooperation among organizations responding to a large-scale disaster.
The system has “no single point of failure,” Jenkins said. “Every component in the system is backed up with a redundancy.”
In this case, redundancies are good. For example, if the radio tower on top of Blue Mountain in Anniston somehow failed, area agencies that rely on the tower for radio signals — like the Anniston fire and police departments — wouldn’t experience a break in service. The Chimney Peak tower in Jacksonville would automatically pick up the connection, Jenkins said.
That’s just a simple example of the so-called “redundancy” of the 800-MHz system. In reality, Jenkins said, it would be difficult for any single tower to completely fail, partly because of the towers’ multiple microwave antennae and partly because of the backup generators at each tower site.
‘Best bang for their buck’
Department of Homeland Security consultant John Powell called the 800-MHz system “a robust example of interoperability” among public safety agencies.
Powell, a member of the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council, has studied public safety communication systems on the local, state and national levels for decades. After learning how this regional system is set up, Powell cited the number of towers, up-to-date software and centralized management as evidence of the system’s strength, its value to the Calhoun and Talladega communities.
“It sounds like they are getting the best bang for their buck,” Powell told a Star reporter by phone from his office at the University of California, Berkeley.
He conceded a modern 800-MHz system like this one is expensive to maintain. But Powell noted switching to another structure would be just as costly.
To get the same coverage, the board would have to build the same number of tower sites for whatever alternative they chose, Powell said. He added none of the alternative communication networks would provide the counties with the number of channels they have now with the 800-MHz system.
“Why do we have to pay this money for this large, very complex radio system?” asked Jenkins. “The paramount reason in my mind is really the reliability.
“For a police officer or firefighter, reliability is a life-or-death situation.”
The lesson ofApril 27, 2011
Local responders who have agreed to pay the price for the radios say their worth became clear in the aftermath of last April’s series of tornadoes.
While other public safety officials in places like Tuscaloosa suffered from downed cell-phone coverage and incompatible radios, first responders in Calhoun County communicated via radio without a hitch.
None of the area towers lost power during the storms, Jenkins said.
After the tornado tore through northern Calhoun County, EMA officials and the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office helped to set up command stations in Webster’s Chapel, Ohatchee, Big Oak and Williams. All of the first responders from Calhoun and Talladega counties who assisted in search-and-rescue and cleanup efforts were directed about what to do, how to respond and who needed help through the 800-mHz system’s numerous open channels.
Even some responders from Etowah County and Gadsden who came over to help were able to patch into some of those “group talk” channels, law enforcers said.
Talladega police Chief Alan Watson said he sent officers to assist responders both in Birmingham and in the Webster’s Chapel area of Calhoun County.
In Birmingham, first responders struggled to stay in contact. In Webster’s Chapel, the opposite was true.
“Everyone had the ability to all communicate between each other,” Watson said.
‘Too expensive for us’
Members of the Quad Cities and White Plains Volunteer Fire Department, to name a couple, have elected to turn in their 800-MHz radios, according to fire officials.
It would cost the Quad Cities department $9,990 a year to keep its 37 radios. And most volunteer departments, which rely on fundraisers like bake sales and recouping a small portion of county property taxes, don’t have that kind of dough.
Instead, small fire departments and agencies like Piedmont police will communicate on other systems, including Ultra-High Frequency and Very High Frequency radios.
Those systems usually have smaller ranges and only one channel.
But the city of Piedmont updated its VHF system in 2003, the police chief said, by purchasing new dispatch equipment and adding more channels to the system.
It works for Piedmont better than the 800-MHz system does, Tidwell said.
For large-scale coordination, the volunteer firefighters plan to piggyback off county 911 dispatchers, said Quad Cities chief Van Roberts.
The 911 office will pay for the 800-MHz system, but will also be able to dispatch using UHF.
“It won’t put us at a great disadvantage,” Roberts said of forgoing the 800-MHz system. “Our biggest concern was cost.”
Fincher said he hopes those cost concerns will be addressed in the future if the system sees more users. Expansion, he said, would drive down agencies’ per-radio cost.
“This … could lead to a huge regional system at some in time,” Calhoun County Administrator Ken Joiner agreed. “We need to gain the confidence of the users right now.”
Statewide system:Realistic or not
Now the priority is working out the kinks of the system transfer. But dreams of a “huge regional system” hang like thought bubbles above the heads of public safety leaders across the state.
Other counties — including Etowah, Madison and Baldwin — either have comparable 800-MHz systems or are in the process of building them. And the technology of linking all of those systems together is relatively simple, communications experts said.
But while radios are built to communicate, not all officials are hardwired like that, said Ernie Blair. The CEO of the Madison County Communications District said territorialism within jurisdictions creates the difficulty.
Blair’s goal is to reach regional and, eventually, statewide interoperability among public agencies. “I call it my ‘Delusions of Grandeur,’” he said. “It takes a lot of cooperation, a lot of people checking their egos aside.”
If that “ego-checking” happened, Etowah, Madison and Calhoun county officials agree interoperability could happen.
Fincher said the board that will soon manage Calhoun and Talladega counties’ 800-MHz system is a good model for cooperation.
“The creation of the board itself has been key in bringing the different groups together,” Joiner added. He explained it’s because the board members are more than talking heads. They’re also the boots on the ground — the police, the firefighters and school employees — who will pay the high price for the radios.
That management setup — combined with the magnitude of the impending CSEPP transfer — makes this a unique time for public safety communications in this region, the state and country, officials said.
“There’s no blueprint for this,” Fincher said. “We are making history as we go.”
Star staff writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.