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

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer