Mobile radio equipment manufacturers often overlook small municipalities, which don't have the funding — or the need, in most cases — for large systems costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. But the situation is changing, as some manufacturers are beginning to understand the aggregate opportunity presented by the thousands of small towns that exist from coast to coast.

While they might not need the size, small municipalities do need the sophistication of large computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems, according to Lex Rutter, information and communications services manager for the Tulsa, Okla., Airport Authority and a member of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials International's executive council. Smaller towns generate the same type of emergency situations as large cities, just nowhere near as many, he said. “We need to do virtually all of the inputs that New York City would have to do,” Rutter said. “But where they're generating hundreds of thousands of records, we're operating two powers of magnitude below that.”

The overlooking of small municipalities is a function of human nature, said Ray Maxwell, vice president of sales and marketing for Eventide. “People tend to go for the low-hanging fruit,” he said. “It's just a matter of mathematics. The reality is that you'll be more effective in terms of your yield per hour when you go for large jobs.”

Nevertheless, Eventide introduced a call-logging system last summer that scales down to as few as eight channels and has a four-channel system on the drawing board. “We want to bring this product to the smaller facilities and therefore reach a wider market,” Maxwell said. Though the per-channel cost is lower for a large system, small municipalities that need only four to six channels would pay for extra channels they won't use if they were to opt for Eventide's current product — which scales from eight channels to 48 — and that would make little fiscal sense.

“What we hope to do is bring out a smaller, less expensive version of that, which will be scalable,” Maxwell said. “It will have the lion's share of features, but in a smaller, more cost-effective package.”

Maxwell described the equipment marketplace as a “classic pyramid,” with the small municipalities making up the base. “As you get to the base of the pyramid, there are many, many smaller municipalities, and they need a smaller channel count,” Maxwell said. “There is a huge opportunity there that we're not really addressing right now.”

St. Louis-based IDS Applications has addressed this segment since the company's founding, but software engineer Roger Hediger admits IDS “fell into it.” As a small organization with just six employees, the company didn't have the resources to produce larger, more sophisticated systems. Nevertheless, IDS is quite happy with the niche it has found serving smaller towns with populations as low as 5000. “In Illinois alone, there are about 400 municipalities that size,” he said. “Companies with systems that cost a quarter of a million dollars and up, they're not going to get a lot of these small municipalities.”

IDS bases the pricing for its Lawman CAD system on the number of workstations employed by the user. Towns or counties with as few as three workstations could purchase a Lawman system for as little as $30,000, Hediger said.

The timing couldn't be better for equipment manufacturers to turn their attention to small-town America, according to Maxwell. “Many of these smaller municipalities are looking to upgrade their facilities because of what's happened with homeland security, and there now are a lot of funds available to make those upgrades.”