March 17, 2010 By Merrill Douglas
If necessity is the mother of invention, it may also be the secret to the success of Palmetto 800 (PAL 800), South Carolina's statewide emergency communications radio system. Founded in the early 1990s, the 800 MHz trunked network has grown into one of the nation's largest statewide systems, providing interoperable communications for more than 450 state, county and municipal agencies.
Today PAL 800 supports more than 25,000 voice radios, including some in North Carolina, and 1,400 mobile data devices. It operates largely on a pay-as-you-go basis. System officials are preparing to extend its reach into neighboring counties in Georgia.
George Crouch, who has worked with the system since its start, said it has grown and thrived because necessity forced its owners to innovate.
"There wasn't a huge pot of money," said Crouch, statewide interoperability coordinator for South Carolina's Division of State Information Technology, "so we really had to be creative."
The history of PAL 800 stretches back to 1989, when Hurricane Hugo ravaged parts of South Carolina. As first responders from other areas poured in to help, incompatible radio systems made it difficult to coordinate public safety efforts.
State officials decided they needed a statewide system that would let first responders from throughout South Carolina talk to one another in times of need. But with an estimated price tag of $100 million, how to build such a network was a puzzle. "The state at the time just didn't have the money to go out and fund a complete system," Crouch said.
While the state explored its options, Spartanburg County, S.C., was looking into building a trunked radio network of its own. Lack of funds posed an obstacle there too.
Spartanburg county officials decided to forge a partnership with Scana Corp., a power company that owns electrical utilities in South Carolina, North Carolina and Georgia, and also wanted to expand its radio infrastructure. The utility and county agreed to join forces on a system they could both use, building out from Scana's existing Motorola 800 MHz trunked radio network. Spartanburg County would provide the towers and generators for new antenna sites, and Scana would provide the radio frequency equipment and manage the network. User fees would finance operations.
Between 1992 and 1995, the system expanded, somewhat informally, to include users from state government and other counties. Agencies signed their own agreements with Scana or operated with no contracts at all, said Crouch, who was Spartanburg County's 911 communications director at the time.
In 1995, South Carolina signed a contract of its own with the utility. "That's where it kicked off and began to grow," said Crouch, who soon came to work for the state. "And it's been growing each year since."
Under the agreement with the state, Scana would provide and manage the network infrastructure. Public safety agencies would buy radios for their users and pay fees to help cover network operating costs. Each government entity paid a fee based on the geographic area it needed to cover with its radios.
Although this arrangement worked well for several years, eventually Scana and its government users ran into a chicken-and-egg dilemma, said Tom Fletcher, deputy director for the Network Services and Disaster Recovery section of South Carolina's Division of State Information Technology. To finance further expansion, Scana needed fresh revenues. But new users didn't want to join until the network covered their jurisdictions.
"We recognized that the system should be expanded to cover the entire state to be most effective for its customers," said Scana spokesman Eric Boomhower.
A statewide expansion would take more capital than Scana could provide. So in 2001, with the state's blessing, Scana agreed to sell the network infrastructure to Motorola, which would operate the system and fund its expansion. South Carolina also contributed some capital, Fletcher said.
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