Ottawa County considers change in emergency channels

Alex Doty • Dec 10, 2015 at 12:00 PM

WEST OLIVE — Local emergency responders could soon be talking on a new communications platform.

The Ottawa County Central Dispatch Authority is considering a plan to implement an 800 MHz radio system for its police, fire and emergency communications, joining the Michigan Public Safety Communication System.

“The 800 MHz is a frequency used by law enforcement,” said the authority’s executive director, Tim Smith. “It’s part of the plan for (interoperability) going forward.”

The Ottawa County Central Dispatch Authority Policy Board is expected to make a decision on the purchase of the new technology during its board meeting at 9 a.m. Friday at the Ottawa County Fillmore Street Complex.  

The new radio system would allow public safety agencies to communicate with each other on the same platform, and it would also allow for coordination of activities with other agencies from neighboring counties in the future, county officials say.

“The system as proposed would be a significant coverage improvement, and provide interoperability as people move forward in the future,” Smith said.

The county has received a proposal from Motorola for a $13.5 million project to transition from the current VHF system to the 800 MHz (UHF) system — a cost that’s less than the typical $18 million to $19 million, according to Smith.

“We’ve looked at the finances and we believe we can finance that with the dedicated millage for 911,” Smith said.

A 20-year levy renewed by voters in 2008, the 911 millage has a limit of 0.44 mill. That means a tax of about $44 a year for a home with a taxable value of $100,000.
 The millage provides money for technology upgrades required for public safety communications across the county.

“If it’s approved, we would hit the ground running,” Smith said, noting that rollout would likely take 1-2 years.

Smith noted that the county would maintain its VHF system as it transitions over to the 800 MHz system.

“We’re keeping that,” Smith said. “And, as people transition, there’d be less and less use for the VHF system.”

One of the big changes that occurred in the past few months concerning the Michigan Public Safety Communication System is that, in the past, subscribers had to pay an annual subscription fee — something that’s been done away with, Smith noted.

“They’ve converted to a one-time fee, which would be included in the cost of the project,” he said.

While the proposal from Motorola offers a savings, there are some who have expressed concerns about how fast the county is moving on the project.

“The down side is that it is rushed,” said County Administrator Al Vanderberg, who also serves on the Central Dispatch Authority. “It is moving fast.”

Both Vanderberg and Smith said that to work through some of the concerns and questions, there have been stakeholder meetings in the past few weeks to discuss the pros and cons of the project, each lasting 2-3 hours.

“We’re still working through many of the questions as we speak,” Smith said.

While the project may be on a fast track, the county is also weighing the cheaper cost to upgrade now versus in a year or two, Vanderberg said, knowing that they’d eventually make a switch.

“This is something that we’ve known has been coming for a number of years,” he said. 

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