Daviess County Nearing Decision on Critical New Radio System

The decision to not repair the current VHF radio system leaves officials with two options. They could install a new VHF system, which would solve some problem but not others. Or they could build a “trunked P25” digital system.

by James Mayse, Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky. / January 24, 2020

(TNS) - Daviess County commissioners are committed to replacing the county’s obsolete and inadequate radio system for sheriff’s deputies and firefighters, county Judge-Executive Al Mattingly said Thursday. 

“I don’t think anyone here wants to stay status quo,” Mattingly said, at the end of a work session where commissioners and department heads discussed issues with the current radio system. 

The decision to not just try to repair the current VHF radio system leaves officials with two options. Commissioners could either have a new VHF system installed, which would solve some problems while not addressing others. Or, they could opt to build a “trunked P25” digital system, which would cost more but would resolve interference issues and provide agencies with more channels on which to communicate. 

There is a cost difference, of course. Consultants with the Texas firm of Trott Communications estimated a new VHF system would cost the county $4.86 million over a 16-year period, a figure that includes annual maintenance. A digital system would cost $6.46 million over the same period. 

Officials with the Daviess County Fire Department, Daviess County Sheriff’s Department and Daviess County Emergency Management said they all favored the county choosing the digital system. 

“We have had an issue for years,” with the current radio system, county Fire Chief Jeremy Smith said. Because the city of Owensboro is already on a digital system, county firefighters have to use special radios to talk to city fire units, Jeremy Smith said.

“We have to talk on two different radios at times,” Jeremy Smith said. Being able to talk directly to agencies on digital systems, such as OFD, Kentucky State Police and the Owensboro Police Department, would be “huge,” Smith said.

Officials with county departments have complained that messages often become garbled when dispatch is attempting to talk to a firefighter or deputy using a portable radio.

Trott communications studied the current system, and found some of the system’s equipment to send and boost radio signals is no longer being manufactured or supported by manufacturers. Trott officials also found almost all of the portable radios, and the majority of voice pagers used by volunteer firefighters, are obsolete.

The Trott study found the existing portable radios have only limited county coverage. Upgrading to either a new VHF system or a digital system would give agencies 97% coverage in the county.

But there would still be communication problems with a new VHF system, such as messages garbled by interference and “skip,” where radio traffic from far-off agencies is received louder than local traffic, due to atmospheric conditions. A VHF system would have a limited number of channels, and obtaining new channels from the Federal Communications Commission might be difficult.

Keith Whitt, Trott’s vice president of communications, said a digital system wouldn’t skip or have problems with interference.

With the P25 system, “We have confidence those channels will actually be there,” Whitt said.

A digital system would have a large number of available channels, so responders wouldn’t be talking over one another or blocking the available channels.

“You would not run out of channels,” said Thomas Murphy, Trott senior project manager.

Currently, “three channels are all we have,” Jeremy Smith said.

Maj. Barry Smith, chief deputy for the sheriff’s department, said sheriff’s deputies having difficulty taking to OPD officers happens “on a weekly basis.” In buildings like county schools, “our portable coverage is nothing, it’s non-existent.”

Responders not being able to contact dispatch on a crowded VHF channel has been an issue.

“Last year, we had a firefighter go down,” Jeremy Smith said. “Chief (Dwane) Smeathers was hollering, but couldn’t get (a message) out” to reach dispatch, he said.

An emergency button on the digital radios would go straight to dispatch, and dispatchers could override any radio traffic if needed, Murphy said.

City-county 911 Director Paul Nave also voiced support for a digital system.

“If we can’t communicate efficiently … we are not supporting the community,” Nave said.

The entire process, from issuing a request for proposals to completion of the work, would take about two years. Mattingly said he would like to begin work on a request for proposals soon, so officials have an idea of how to begin budgeting for the work in the next county budget.

If county officials delay taking action, “the cost is not going to go down,” Mattingly said.

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

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