Cambria, County, Pa., Commissioners Approve Grants for 911 Improvements

The commissioners unanimously approved a 911 fund statewide interconnectivity grant with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA), for $439,653.

by Jocelyn Brumbaugh, The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa. / February 18, 2019

(TNS) - Cambria County Commissioners approved two contracts Thursday that will allow for new connections with other counties and improve existing ones when it comes to 911 communication.

During a regular meeting, the commissioners unanimously approved a 911 fund statewide interconnectivity grant with the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA), for $439,653.

Robbin Melnyk, county 911 coordinator, said this money will be used to upgrade and renew licenses for two large pieces of equipment purchased by Cambria County and 14 surrounding counties a few years ago.

A second grant of $96,607 will go toward maintenance and monitoring of Cambria County’s software, connecting it with Blair and Somerset counties, Melnyk said.

In June 2015, state legislation for 911 funding changed the fees counties received from landlines and cellphones. These fees are collected by PEMA and distributed to counties using a formula based on populations, special cases, call volume, high-risk facilities and other factors.

Of the fees collected by PEMA, 83 percent are distributed to counties. PEMA keeps 2 percent of the fees for its management of the funds and 15 percent is earmarked for qualifying regional projects.

Those projects aim to reduce duplicated costs, Melnyk said, such as sharing larger equipment for cost savings and collaborating with other counties.

Cambria County’s location opens up several opportunities to use the PEMA money for regional connections, all while improving the county’s current 911 radio system, Melynk said.

“As Cambria stabilizes more of its own tower sites, more funding will be available” to connect with other counties, she said, adding that additional grants are on their way for similar interconnectivity projects.

In December, the commissioners approved a new 911 communications tower in Cresson Township that will provide better coverage for first responders, allow connectivity to nearby Blair County and provide an opportunity for savings and revenues.

A 911 antenna atop a water tank on the former SCI-Cresson property will be moved to a newly installed 180-foot tower on a nearby parcel owned by the Cambria County Redevelopment Authority.

This move will save the county money – no longer paying rent on the previous tower site

– while construction will allow for wireless carrier companies to rent space from the county to provide better cell reception in that area.

A $398,448 bid from Tower Services Unlimited includes construction of the tower, a communications shelter and a generator at that site. It will be paid for through the county’s 911 fees, but some of it will be eligible for regional funds due to the tower’s connection with Blair County.

Last year, the commissioners approved a contract with Mission Critical Partners – tasked with analyzing the current 911 network, and tracking immediate fixes and future design enhancements to overhaul the county’s 911 radio system.

Officials say coverage area of the current radio system has been affected by tree growth and the use of analog radios instead of digital units, which has created situations in which first responders can’t communicate with dispatchers at the 911 center or with each other on emergency scenes.

During periods of hard rain, microwave signals between towers are often lost, meaning first responders and dispatchers lose their means of communication. A reset of those signals can take a few seconds, but in an emergency, those seconds are critical, according to Melnyk.

Mission Critical is currently developing a request for proposals for a new 911 radio system based on responses from first responders about the current issues regarding coverage area, reliability, new technology and GPS capabilities.

The engineering group will likely have a request for proposals ready in March, then vendors would have six months to a year to submit bids. The consultant firm has worked with PEMA and surrounding counties, so staff are familiar with existing infrastructure around Cambria County.

“Everything is incorporating what our needs are,” Melnyk said.


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