911 board gets to work on radio upgrade
by Brian Anderson
banderson@annistonstar.com
May 29, 2013 | 5538 views |  0 comments | 29 29 recommendations | email to a friend | print
An 800 MHz radio that is currently used by most public safety agencies in Calhoun and Talladega counties.  (Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
An 800 MHz radio that is currently used by most public safety agencies in Calhoun and Talladega counties. (Photo: Trent Penny/The Anniston Star)
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JACKSONVILLE – The Calhoun County 911 Board of Commissioners won’t put off trying to upgrade its new radio system, members say.

A day after the Alabama Regional Communication System voted to give up control of the 800 megahertz system linking public safety officials throughout the region, the 911 board met Wednesday to get acquainted with its new acquisition and to understand what it needs to do to fund a $4.1 million upgrade.

“This is a learning session for everybody,” said Mike Fincher, a member of both the 911 and Communication System board. “This is time to ask questions if you have them.”

The most pressing concern for the 911 board is how to pay for an upgrade that will cost an estimated $4.1 million. The Communication System hoped legislation would have passed earlier this year for a referendum on raising property taxes for residents in Calhoun and Talladega counties to raise the money. When the measure failed, a Calhoun County Commission-appointed committee, led by Fincher, suggested the 911 board take over the system. Fincher said the 911 board’s financial standing will make it easier to secure a loan or bond for the upgrade, with the hope of user fees on the system sustaining it for the future.

Wednesday’s meeting is one of the many quickly called sessions over the last week from the 911 board, Communication System and Calhoun County Commission to transfer ownership of the 800 MHz system.

“We need to have our foot on the gas pedal,” said Fincher. he said that without an upgrade before the end of the year, the board might be unable to get money for an even more expensive overhaul down the road. “On Dec. 31 the server changes and our costs are going to double.”

Kevin Jenkins, the system’s administrator, said much of the technology controlling the system is nearing the end of its life cycle. The longer the system goes without an upgrade, the more likely the chances are that the system will falter, he said.

“It’s a perpetual problem,” Jenkins said. “If we don’t update the system, it’s going to eventually fail, and then we won’t have up-to-date equipment to fix the problem.”

Jenkins said until the system is upgraded, new users will be hesitant to link into the system as well, meaning the system’s potential revenue stream will stop growing.

The system now has 3,100 users, including police and fire departments, schools and other first responders, who pay $22.50 per month per radio. Jenkins and Fincher said it’s possible the system could link with neighboring Etowah County and eventually the whole state as part of an Alabama Department of Homeland Security plan to link the state through one radio system.

911 board member Matt Lowery said after the meeting that with the new takeover, few obstacles stand in the way of getting money secured for an upgrade.

“This isn’t 911 money we’re using,” Lowery said. “It’s like being a co-signer on a lease. User fees are going to keep the system going after we get this upgrade.”

And the sooner the board can get an upgrade done, the better, Lowery said.

“We’re going to get this system upgraded,” Lowery said. “This system is too vital to the day-to-day operations of this county to go away.”

The board is scheduled to meet next week with officials from Motorola to go over its financial standing.

Federal funding paid for the 800 MHz system in the 1990s as part of FEMA’s Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program. Funding went away after the last of the Army’s chemical weapons in Anniston were destroyed in 2011.

Staff Writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.
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