Cambria County, Pa., Preparing for 911 Radio System Overhaul

An overhaul of the county’s 911 radio system got rolling last March, when the Cambria County commissioners approved a contract with Mission Critical Partners.

by Jocelyn Brumbaugh, The Tribune-Democrat, Johnstown, Pa. / February 25, 2019

(TNS) - Cambria County officials are making efforts to ensure that first responders can communicate effectively and consistently with each other when it matters most – during emergency calls.

An overhaul of the county’s 911 radio system got rolling last March, when the Cambria County commissioners approved a contract with Mission Critical Partners – tasked with analyzing the current 911 network, and tracking immediate fixes and future design enhancements.

The $201,870 contract covers network design services, along with a $16,500 equipment allowance.

Robbin Melnyk, county 911 coordinator, said the coverage area of the current radio system has been affected by tree growth and the use of analog radios instead of digital units.

That 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, Melnyk said.

“The time we need it most is when it’s least reliable,” Melnyk said. “That’s scary.”

Because an overhaul of the 911 radio system carries a total price tag of $15 million to $18 million, Melnyk said having Mission Critical Partners evaluate the current system will ensure that money is spent in the most effective way.

“It is a high priority to make sure that first responders can communicate,” Cambria President Commissioner Tom Chernisky said. “Robbin and Mission Critical are doing their due diligence to determine what needs to be done to fix the system. We need a system that works, and we need a system that works when our first responders need it most.”

‘Not sitting back’

Mission Critical is 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.

“We want to work on this as a team,” Melnyk said. “We started the process. That was the biggest step. We’re not sitting back waiting.”

Mission Critical Partners 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, Melnyk said.

Meanwhile, Melnyk said, work is ongoing to repair the most unreliable connection pathways until the larger project becomes feasible.

“Plugging in another extension cord is what we’re doing,” she said.

“We’ve been nursing ours as long as we possibly can. We can’t do it anymore. Every dollar we spend, we’re making sure it’s going toward a new system cost. Everything we spend today is chiseling away at that.”

The challenge is to not interrupt the county’s current system, which was implemented in 2007, while working on improvements, she said.

Towers and phone fees

With 21 towers in the county’s 911 system, Melnyk said, the solution to the network’s radio coverage gaps may not include additional towers. Some could be eliminated by sharing resources with other surrounding counties, which will improve interoperability for Cambria County first responders assisting at scenes outside the county’s radio frequency.

A recent $800,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency through the collection of various phone fees can be leveraged in this project for this kind of improvement in interconnectivity with other counties, Melnyk said.

In June 2015, Melnyk said new 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.

“We’re always looking for opportunities to use that regional money,” she said, because it frees up the county’s normal 911 fee allocations for other projects.

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.

‘We are the gateway’

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, Melnyk said.

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, Melynk said.

“As commissioners, we will continue to work to find funding to improve the system,” Chernisky said.

“Cambria County has received PEMA grants to build a new tower in Cresson and to improve microwaves that will enhance connectivity. Cambria County is in a great location – we are the gateway to connect Region 13 and the South Central Mountain Counties, and it will be important to network with other counties in the future to help streamline services and efficiency.”

Melnyk said that, unlike the system in place, a new Cambria County 911 radio system must be specifically designed with a primary focus on public safety and will likely take two years to be fully implemented.

“We’re moving in that direction as quickly as we can,” she said.

Jocelyn Brumbaugh is a reporter for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow her on Twitter @JBrumbaughTD.

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