Public-safety officials and end-users complain a lot about the antiquated state of their networks, systems and equipment. They worry about coverage gaps. They bemoan that the typical teenager walks around with a more sophisticated device than the typical first responder. They drool with envy at the advanced applications that would make them more effective and keep them safer but always seem to be beyond their grasp. And there’s good reason for the angst.

Money is the problem. There’s never enough and what is available is difficult to attain—whether one is dealing with tight-fisted government officials or trying to navigate the labyrinth-like grant process. Long amortization cycles make the task more challenging by rendering new purchases difficult, if not impossible, to justify.

Given this dilemma, I’ve long wondered why public-safety agencies haven’t tried harder to hook up with their public-utility brethren, who often have similar issues—and communications infrastructure. Sure, egos would have to be checked and compromises made. But wouldn’t that be a small price to pay in order to dramatically improve the communications environment for both entities?

The Nevada Shared Radio System is proof it can be done. In August I sat in on a session led by Mark Pallans, the entity’s radio system administrator, at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials annual conference in Kansas City. He told us that Nevada is the nation’s seventh largest state—covering 110,000 square miles, which makes it as large as New England—and its most mountainous. It has two major population centers, Reno/Carson City and Las Vegas/Clark County, which have about a half million and 2.1 million residents, respectively. In contrast, the rest of the state—which is mostly desert, forest, and mountain—has 256,000 residents. “There’s a lot of empty land in the state and a lot of ground to cover,” Pallans said.

So much land, and so varied a topography, that the only way to cover it effectively was through a team effort. The ball got rolling when both the Department of Transportation and Nevada Power decided to deploy 800 MHz systems. A year later, they agreed to jointly build a unified radio system that would cover the entire state. Sierra Pacific Power joined a year later. In 2003, Washoe County, in which the city of Reno is located, and the Nevada Highway Patrol jumped on board. Today, the trunked EDACS system consists of 90 sites, and Pallans believes “just under 100 sites” will be operational by the end of this year.

The advantages of the arrangement are many, Pallans said. Buildouts occur faster—“There’s only one budget and one RFP,” he said—and the cost to each partner is a lot less than if they were footing the bill individually. Other plusses include greater spectral efficiency, better coverage, improved maintenance and interoperability—the Holy Grail of first responder communications.

That’s not to say pulling off this enormous undertaking was easy. In fact, it was quite challenging at times, Pallans said. Coverage had to be defined—both public-safety agencies and public utilities tend to be quite proprietary about their frequencies, he said—and memoranda of understanding negotiated and drafted. Maintenance responsibilities had to be determined, while administrative and governance structures had to be established.

In addition, frequency coordinators had to be convinced to get on board with a concept that seemed quite foreign to them, which was no easy task. “Without them, things really get dicey. [But] there is no provision for any of this, anywhere in the rules,” Pallans said. “You have to go out there and explain the concept … and justify the reason you can’t go out and build your own radio system.”

There also were myriad dealings with federal agencies—and not just the FCC. About 70% of Nevada is federal land, which meant that the Bureau of Land Management often was involved when sites needed to be acquired. “They’re the worst people to deal with in the United States—very slow, for no apparent reason, other than being federal” Pallans said. Fortunately, the adage that there is safety in numbers rang true in this regard. “Having multiple entities involved helps in dealing with the BLM,” Pallans said.

Then there were the dealings with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. At one point, Nevada Power discovered an abandoned structure on the top of a ridge that it thought would be ideal for a tower site. “It turned out that some Indian tribe that no one had ever heard of had claimed that as holy ground, so they couldn’t build,” Pallans said.

Despite the trials and tribulations, building the Nevada Shared Radio System was worth the effort, according to Pallans.

“It’s easier to co-locate than to get your own site.”

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