LOCK HAVEN -The Clinton County commissioners approved a contract Thursday with Transcore for a $1.13 million emergency communications upgrade officials say will meet both federal mandates and the county's narrow band needs for the next decade.
The software-hardware combination from the Hummelstown-based firm will mean some changes for many of the players in over-the-air communications - including the county Department of Emergency Services.
The mandate from the Federal Communications Commission will result in the county being required to spend the cash for communications upgrades, all of which must be in place by next December.
That deadline shouldn't be a problem, Emergency Services Director Kevin Fanning said. The county has been working on meeting the new federal requirements since 2010, when local officials began the planning process, continued through 2011 with the design process, and entered 2012 by looking for financial resources to pay for the system.
"We search high and low and unfortunately, there was no money out there," Fanning said, noting that opportunities for federal or state grants have decreased in recent years even as state and federal regulations require local governments to spend money on new systems.
Commissioner Pete Smeltz congratulated Fanning for moving ahead with the plans in a timely manner, insuring that the county will complete the project ahead of the deadline.
In this case, he said, the former board of commissioners that stepped out of office at the end of 2011 had the foresight to include the cost of the upgrade when they refinanced the county bond issues, allowing the financial burden to be spread across a decade instead of a one-time, sudden expense.
The total bond was in the neighborhood of $6.1 million, which will pay for a $1.23 million energy-efficiency project; an expected cost for the county emergency communications system; and renovation work or purchase of a new Renovo area district justice building.
The cost is less than the $1.6 million the former board anticipated, and "gives us room to maneuver if something goes awry," Fanning said. The cost also addresses some maintenance issues at the county's leased or owned communications towers.
Fanning said most counties in Pennsylvania are finding finding themselves in the same financial boat, and he noted that Centre County is answering the mandate with a $22 million system.
"I think if I had proposed that, I'd soon find myself out of a job," Fanning joked. "Seriously, we don't need anything like that to meet the needs of the future uses and expansion of our emergency system, as well as the mandate."
Fanning also commended new county Solicitor Larry Coploff for his willingness to study, amend and recommend the contract over the weekend.
In December 2004, the FCC mandated that users operating below 512 MHz move to 12.5 kHz narrow band voice channels by 2013.
According to the FCC, using narrow band channels will ensure that radio users take advantage of more efficient technology. Reducing channel width will allow additional channels to exist within the same spectrum space.
Unfortunately, the FCC set the regulations without providing any money to support local government projects, which means the county's on the hook to pay for the upgrade.
The mandate will necessitate projects at each of the county's tower sites and at the 911 dispatch center.
In the past five or six years, the county has already spent $1.5 million to upgrade its emergency communications system, but that particular project only addressed the fire company and EMS portion of the system, Fanning said.
While that side is compatible with narrow band necessities, Fanning said, this project will address the "other half" of the system, including police communications and systems used by school boards, bus drivers, PennDOT plow operators, state police, local police and dispatching services, to name a few.