Public safety radios in county must be converted

Published 3:56 pm Friday, May 4, 2012

A federal mandate related to public safety radio use could cost Chilton County agencies tens of thousands of dollars.

The Federal Communications Commission is requiring all public safety and business industrial land mobile radio systems to switch from 25 kHz technology to 12.5 kHz or better technology by Jan. 1, 2013.

Basically, FCC wants to allow access to more users. If each user is taking up less space on the radio spectrum, then there will be room for more.

But the mandate leaves local governments, police and fire agencies to convert their equipment, a process that can be costly, especially for agencies with small budgets.

Adam Price, chief of the Cedar Grove Fire Department and president of the Chilton County Volunteer Firefighter’s Association, said a typical county fire department could expect to pay from $3,000 to $6,000 to have their radios narrowbanded. That could be as much as one-tenth of Cedar Grove’s annual budget of about $60,000.

“Nobody really had it in their budget to do,” Price said. “We’ve been knowing about it for a couple of years, but it kind of slipped up on everybody and now something has to be done.”

Radio repeaters will also have to be narrowbanded. A repeater takes a nearby radio signal and repeats it, while increasing its strength, so that the signal can be received from farther away.

Narrowbanding a repeater costs about $300, Price said.

The firefighter’s association maintains three repeaters, in Jemison, Fairview and Maplesville. There are several others in the county, maintained by the Chilton County Sheriff’s Department and other police agencies.

Repeaters are housed in small buildings, with large antennae attached.

Price said work will begin on the fire association repeaters next month.

“At the end of July, we ought to be narrowband capable,” he said.

Some local agencies, such as the Clanton Fire Department, have already made the switch to narrowband. The Clanton Police Department chose to switch to SouthernLINC radios, which were already being used as a backup.

The Chilton County Commission opened bids last month on a project to narrowband the radios in the county’s severe weather warning sirens, and the lowest bid received was $27,900.

Commissioners at the meeting indicated that while the siren radios are being narrowbanded, the radios would also be moved from the fire frequency to the county’s Emergency Management Agency frequency.

The siren radios have been on the fire frequency since they were installed but can create problems for the county’s fire department. Each of the 25 sirens is sounded individually by a radio tone.

“It sends out an audible tone that is about five seconds long for each siren that is going off,” Price said. “If you’ve got something going on, you can’t talk while the siren is going off.”

The Volunteer Firefighter’s Association had a law firm send a letter to the commission requesting that the siren radios be taken off the county fire frequency. Price said the letter was a way to make an official request and to have paperwork to file, and did not signal the association’s intention to file a lawsuit.