New county emergency radio system OK'd despite opposition

Alex Doty • Dec 12, 2015 at 10:00 AM

WEST OLIVE — Plans to implement a $13.5 million upgrade to county’s emergency dispatch system are moving forward.

On Friday morning, the Ottawa County Central Dispatch Authority’s Policy Board approved a plan to implement an 800 MHz radio system for its police, fire and emergency communications, joining the Michigan Public Safety Communication System.

“It’s a bridge to the future and gets us ultimately to where we need to go,” said County Administrator Al Vanderberg, who is also a member of the Central Dispatch board.

Proponents of the new system say the system is one that the county would eventually switch to, it will allow public safety agencies to communicate with each other on the same platform, and it will allow for coordination of activities with agencies from neighboring counties in the future.

“We’re not early adopters to this technology,” Vanderberg said.

The county received a proposal from Motorola to transition from its current VHF system to the 800 MHz (UHF) system at a cost that’s less than the typical $18 million to $19 million, officials say. The county plans to maintain its VHF system for fire departments as the transition is made to the higher frequencies.

The project will be financed with the 911 20-year levy renewed by voters in 2008, which 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.

“I think the pricing is a factor,” Vanderberg said. “I’d like anyone to tell us how we’re going to do it (without the current deal) unless we ask for more millage money.”

The county had until Friday to take advantage of Motorola’s offer — a deadline that meant having to expedite the decision-making process.

“We certainly didn’t follow our normal planning and committee structure,” Ottawa County Central Dispatch Authority Executive Director Tim Smith said. “We went through a process that was completely different than what we’ve done before.”

Smith said the authority tried to do its best to answer as many questions about the project as possible during the process.

While the proposal from Motorola offers a savings and gets the county to where it sees itself in the future, not everyone is thrilled by it.

Policy board member Toby Van Ess isn’t happy with how the proposal was handled.

“I’m really disappointed in how this has all come about,” he said. “I’m a little frustrated with the whole process here. I think a vendor came in and pushed us very hard to make a decision we’re not ready to make.“

Van Ess said the county needs to take more time to plan out the project.

”We need to listen to folks to find out what they’re looking for and what they want,“ he said.

Blendon Township Fire Chief Kurt Gernaat was one of the many area fire chiefs who spoke out against the planned project. He said he is concerned with the lack of detail and vetting of the new system due to the expedited planning process.

“How can (fire chiefs) even be in favor of this when we don’t even have a contract?” Gernaat said. “How do we know we’re getting a good deal or a bad deal?” 

According to Smith, the county and Motorola worked up until Thursday to hammer out a final contract.

Gernaat also questioned what a “yes” vote may do to relations between the county’s fire chiefs and the dispatch board due to lingering questions about the project.

“I think a yes vote, with most of the fire chiefs being opposed to this, would drive the wedge even deeper,” he said. “I question if we’re getting the deal we think we’re getting.”

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