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County Council, November 18

Problems with Radio system to be addressed
County will spend another $11 million on improvements
Warwick Jones

Citizens had to draw their own conclusions about one item on last night’s Finance Committee agenda. When the item, Radio System Upgrade/ Expansion came up for discussion, the Committee went immediately into executive session for about an hour. After returning to the chamber, members voted unanimously to award a contract to Motorola for $11 million to “upgrade/expand” the Consolidated Dispatch system. There was no further discussion.

Visitors to our site on Friday saw a report stating that the Consolidated Dispatch system was in trouble. The County quickly took issue with us. Consolidated Dispatch was not in trouble, it said. The problem was the underlying radio system used by Consolidated Dispatch. The problem was not new and had been signaled by Council earlier this year. And indeed Charlestonwatch had reported it in a story on January 29, 2010 -Problems plague County’s digital radio system.

The County was right. And although Consolidated Dispatch is affected by the problems of the radio system, the unit’s ultimate integrity remains unaffected and the unit should be fully and optimally functional when the County implements the upgrades to its radio system.

So we pulled our original story! Our apology to the County and viewers.

Herewith excerpts from our January 29 report.

All is not well in the implementation of the County’s new Digital Radio system. Staff wants to hire a consultant to review Motorola’s plan to rectify the problems. The County signed a contract with Motorola in 2005 for its entire analog system to be converted to digital. The new P225 system was identical to that being used by the Federal Government and other national entities.

Problems began to surface nationally in 2008 about the system and in the County’s system, in December 2008. The technical problems experienced nationally were:

  • Voice intelligibility at fire scenes because of interference and background noise
  • Overall reduced radio coverage compared with analog systems
  • Inaudible and dropped radio transmission

Motorola dispatched a technical team from January to May 2009 to address the problems experienced by the County. “Motorola’s final analysis concluded that further improvements would require modification to our current network - and it engineered a long rage plan to allow a complete County -wide solution. The design uses our current 8 towers and required the addition of another 8 towers”.

The motion passed by the Committee last night was as follows:

  • Authorize staff to finalize negotiations and to finalize a contract with Motorola for Phase I and II of the County’s new network design for $11.012 million with a 2% ($240,000) contingency . Phase 111 will be completed at a later date.

  • Authorize staff to enter into 4 tower lease agreement for two five year contract periods and an annual increase to operating expenses of $194,400 and a one time capital cost of $652,305.

  • Authorize staff to hire L.H. Kimball to perform project management and to implement services not to exceed $360.000.

We spoke to the County about the plans for the radio system and why the extra spending was necessary. We were told that the system encountered problems in the coastal areas and in summer. A combination of the climate and the greater use of the airwaves in coastal communities caused interference problems, unanticipated when the system was first designed. To overcome the problems, new towers and ancillary equipment are needed. Towers already exist in the problem areas and will be leased by the County as the motion passed last night indicated. The $11 million new spending relates to the equipment that will located at each of the towers. The new towers and equipment will be integrated into the system by summer or fall next year.

Phase 111 of the project will take the system into the more remote areas of the County and will require the construction/lease of 3 more towers, and ancillary equipment. The estimated cost of the Phase is about $6 million. When it will commence is conjectural and will depend on population growth in these regions. It could be some years away.

The expenditure in relation to the radio system is independent of that for Consolidated Dispatch. The latter is designed to cover emergency operations – essentially police, EMS and firefighting – throughout the whole of the County. All the municipalities signed on to it, even the City of Charleston which originally had some misgivings. The County funded the near $17 million cost of the system and agreed to pay all the running costs, estimated at $10.5 million a year after 2014.

The radio upgrade/expansion item will come before Council on Tuesday night. We hope the Chair gives a fuller explanation of why the spending is necessary and where the money is coming from. Considering that the problem had been evident for some time, we suspect some provision has been made in the current budget.

Sheppard tract to be put on the market again – but with a deed restriction
The fate of the County’s Sheppard Tract was finally decided last night. The 750 acre tract, near Highway 17 and Parker Ferrys Road was once considered as a potential location for garbage landfill. Residents last year protested about the possible use of this site as a dump and the County decided to sell the land. There was a willing buyer but seemingly wanted the land without any deed restriction. Unwittingly, the County had not placed a restriction on the title prohibiting land fill. When it announced its intention, the buyer lost interest.

The County will now place a deed restriction on the property and put it up for sale again. Council member Rawl noted that the Mead West Vaco project was close to the property. It might be better to wait till the project got underway before selling the property, particularly as the market was weak presently, he said. This was acknowledged but as Council member Schweers said, placing the property on the market did not mean that it had to be immediately sold. If bids were too low, the County could retain the property.

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