Officials consider seeking NBAF’s help in paying for radio upgrade

By Stephanie Casanova

Local leaders on Thursday questioned whether the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility intends to use and help pay for Riley County’s emergency radio system upgrade.

The county currently uses a VHF (very high frequency) system and is looking to move to a digital 800 megahertz system. The VHF system’s coverage in Riley County has been worsening in recent years, especially after a federal regulatory change in 2012 reduced its reach.

Pat Collins, Riley County emergency management director, updated commissioners from Riley County, Pottawatomie County and Manhattan on their progress as they work with Harris, a Florida-based communication technology company, on a contract for a $7 million emergency radio system.

The commissioners asked if Collins has been in communication with NBAF about whether the federal lab would be willing to help with the system costs or buy into the system.

Collins said they’ve brought up the topic in meetings with an NBAF representative, but the planners for emergency communications aren’t in Manhattan yet.

Dee McKee, Pot tawatomie County commissioner, said NBAF representatives had meetings in Pottawatomie County almost a year ago and said if there’s anything local governments need, they need to submit it before the next federal budget.

“I don’t think anybody in any of these counties has submitted anything specific because we keep waiting to see what it’s go- ing to be,” McKee said.

“But if it’s going to tax our local taxpayers to do something that might be covered, I guess I look to you guys in your specialties and your understanding to find out if that could be done upfront, because it does impact the local taxpayers to do some of the things that I think they want us to do.”

Collins said he’d like to have a system to offer NBAF once the facility starts operating so officials can buy into an already existing system.

“I’d be interested in trying to nail down NBAF also,” said Linda Morse, city commissioner.

She said somebody besides the NBAF representative Collins already spoke to should have an answer about whether they would help pay for the system. Collins said he’s not sure how long getting a response would take and doesn’t know what the ramifications would be if they waited too long.

Brad Schoen, Riley County Police Department director, said he’s also tried to engage NBAF representatives in the conversation, and their response has been that they’re not ready to talk about it.

“If they’re not ready to talk about something, they won’t talk about it until they’re ready,” Schoen said.

Schoen said his concern is that the federal government will set a deadline for narrowbanding and, because it will take two years to build the new system, the county won’t be able to comply with the deadline.

“It’s a risk/benefit analysis,” Schoen said. “I don’t want to get caught on the back side of it and they say, ‘OK here’s the deadline,’ and we don’t have time to get the infrastructure up.”

The FCC warned local governments in 2002 that they would be “narrowbanding” in 2012 because of congestion from more people using radio waves. Narrowbanding means the range a radio signal will travel gets cut in half, allowing more people to use radio waves without interfering with one another.

Narrowbanding does not affect an 800 mega- hertz system. Current ly, radio signals within city limits are at 60 to 70 percent coverage and are worse outside of city limits in the rest of the county.

Wynn Butler asked whether Harris would be building new towers. Collins said the construction would be on existing towers around the county.

Collins told the commissioners Harris is offering a $4 million discount if the county buys radios along with the system. Collins is looking into whether the discount would still apply if EMS of.cials
buy fewer radios and if they buy them gradually over the two years it will take to build the system. Collins said they’ve determined the amount of radios they will absolutely need for public safety departments is about 150. “They’re saying we still need to buy 230 radios over what our need was to keep that discount,” Collins said.

Harris bid between $5 million and $7 million for the system. Radios would be an additional cost and are estimated at $2,000 apiece.

County commissioners last month voted to move forward in negotiations with Harris. Collins said Harris will send the county a drafted contract next and answer questions about the discount and radio purchases.

The new system would cover all of Riley County and 3 miles out side of the county in all directions.

The system also will offer an application licensing option for smartphones to connect. Collins said at $300 for each app, it would be a good option for non-emergency responders, like the public works department, instead of spending $2,000 each on radios.

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