South Carolina's Public-Private Partnership Brings Interoperability to State Public Safety Communications

Growing emergency communications system serves more than 450 state, county and municipal agencies.

by / March 17, 2010 0
South Carolina Interoperability/transmission tower, radios, satellites Illustration by Tom McKeith

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.

Chicken and Egg

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.

Today Motorola operates PAL 800 under contract to the state. An advisory committee, with members representing the state and local government agencies on the system, provides oversight and develops policies. User fees continue to fund the network's operation.

Scana is still a large user on the network. The utility provides some maintenance services and operates a phone center to field after-hours trouble calls, said Crouch. PAL 800 has since added nine other regional and local power utilities as members, he said.

While Motorola invested in the network, the federal government started making dollars available to improve public safety communications after 9/11. "With the emphasis on homeland security, we started getting more and more grants to buy radios for local government," said Fletcher. These also helped the statewide system grow.

Along with growth, Motorola's arrival spurred a technology upgrade for PAL 800. Among other things, the vendor installed a 64-port zone controller, which allowed both analog and digital communications.

More recently, Motorola has been installing equipment that conforms to Project 25 (P25), the digital radio communications standard developed by the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International to promote interoperable communications. The state now requires agencies to buy P25 radios or units they can upgrade to that standard in the future, Crouch said. "So while we still have quite a few of the older units out there, we've been preparing now for nine years for P25."

With the move to P25, users can buy radios from manufacturers other than Motorola and still remain interoperable.

Switching Back and Forth

Not every local government in South Carolina has joined PAL 800. Seven counties still operate their own networks. But since these all use Motorola 800 MHz technology, their first responders can talk to fee-paying users on the state system. "There are another 20,000 users out there on private county systems that we have interoperability with that can switch back and forth between their systems and our system," Crouch said.

Nevertheless, there are still some holdout agencies in South Carolina that don't enjoy interoperable communications at all. To help close the gap, Crouch and his team have given at least one PAL 800 radio to every police and fire department and emergency medical service in the state. "So they at least have interoperability at the command-and-control level," he said.

The cost of replacing legacy systems is the greatest obstacle keeping some agencies from joining PAL 800, Crouch said. Also, some agency leaders may be reluctant to let someone else manage their communications technology.

"I think some people would argue that you don't have direct control over your system," said Matthew Littleton, deputy chief of operations at Anderson County, S.C., Emergency Services and a member of the PAL 800 advisory committee. "I see that as an advantage." Motorola takes care of all the details of running the radio system, and when an agency needs help with its radios, Motorola's technicians are just a phone call away, he said.

Collaboration on the statewide infrastructure gives agencies a better network than many could afford to build on their own, Littleton said. For example, a single fire department might not be able to install a second radio repeater site to take over if the primary one went down, he said. But the state system offers that kind of redundancy.

Also, the statewide network eliminates territorial conflicts, Littleton said. Agencies don't have to decide whether to allow another agency to access their radio channels. "By contract and by design, if you're a customer on the PAL 800 system, you have to have access to the statewide mutual aid channels."

When first responders need to travel beyond their home area, PAL 800 makes it easy to roam to additional radio towers, Littleton said. "Our Sheriff's Office chased a murder suspect three counties over, and because of the statewide

network, we never lost contact between the dispatcher and the deputies who were in the chase." In the old days, with agencies operating on a patchwork of different radio bands, this would have been impossible, he said.

Border Crossing

The reach of PAL 800 is extending beyond the state border as South Carolina makes connections with neighboring jurisdictions. "Every North Carolina Highway Patrol district office that touches South Carolina has our equipment in their highway patrol office, so they can talk to those regions that touch them," said Crouch. "We are in the middle of doing that with Georgia on the other side."

Besides reaching out to neighbors, the state and Motorola also are in the midst of another project, a multiyear effort to move the radio system from one set of 800 MHz frequencies to another. This is part of the mandatory, nationwide rebanding effort that will separate all 800 MHz public safety radio channels from channels used by the Nextel wireless network.

Rebanding poses a major challenge for South Carolina because it's impossible to convert the entire state system at once. "We're still pounding out how to do this transition and this frequency update without totally confusing all the public safety agencies for a year or so before everything's completed," Crouch said.

Despite that and other struggles, PAL 800 continues to flourish, thanks to creativity sparked by necessity. Credit also is due to all the participants who collaborate so well on the network, Crouch said. "It has truly been a partnership between the vendors, the power utilities and public safety. That's what's made us successful."

 

Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer