Officials for two 800 MHz public-safety licensees in Florida expressed frustration with slowdowns in their respective rebanding efforts caused by interoperability agreements and a lengthy change-order process during a panel at the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Winter Summit in Orlando last week.

The panelists represent two very types of licensees. Greg Holcomb is the director of the communications technology/E-911 division of the Department of Public Safety for Lake County, Fla., which currently uses a VHF system for public-safety communications and only uses 800 MHz for mutual-aid communications with nearby agencies. Lesley Lewis is the radio-system manager and dispatch manager for Brevard County, Fla., fire rescue, which has 67 different agencies using an 800 MHz system that includes 60 frequencies that must be rebanded on more than 3000 pieces of subscriber equipment.

With only four channels and 19 subscriber units to deal with, Lake County, Fla., was deemed a “simple” system that would be rebanded for $128,000, according to the rebanding agreement signed in August 2007, Holcomb said. However, the county has yet to make any progress rebanding its infrastructure to date, because taking such action would result in the loss of its mutual-aid communications with neighboring agencies, several of which have not yet negotiated a rebanding deal with Sprint Nextel. In addition, Holcomb said he recently was told that the state mutual-aid channels might not be rebanded until 2010.

“We have a very small system—four channels reliant on completing rebanding—and I’m not seeing that happen until probably the 2010 time frame, which is a hurry-up-and-wait process,” he said. “For 19 units … the process has been as long and as cumbersome as it’s been for the other (larger) agencies.”

Greater public-safety interoperability has been a priority for Congress since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, but such interoperability can make it much more difficult to complete rebanding, said moderator Alan Tilles, who represents numerous public-safety agencies as a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker. This reality is very evident in Florida, where the interoperability system “may be the best I’ve seen in the nation,” Tilles said.

“It’s amazing,” he said. “One of them can’t make a move without the others.”

For Brevard County, the primary frustration has been a change order related to specialized accessory equipment that was not noted in the negotiation process because “there was no place to put them on the form that Sprint Nextel provided to us,” Lewis said.

Brevard County submitted the change-order request more than six months ago but has not received approval, which has left the entity in limbo, Lewis said.

“I’m at the point where we have everything set up to retune the backbone of the system—all the panels are waiting, we have our assigned frequencies and Sprint Nextel has cleared the channels that are assigned to us,” she said. “If we could receive our change order, we’d be done in 30 days or less.”

Given the delay associated with change orders, Lewis advised other rebanding agencies to check that all accessories and other “exotic” items are included in their rebanding agreements. If they’re not, licensees should submit any necessary changes as quickly as possible. Lewis said she is worried that further delay will create complications with natural weather cycles.

“We don’t like to mess with the system during hurricane season, because we are coastal county,” she said. “We did expect to be completed by June [2008]. We thought we were going to be on schedule, but the change-order process simply kicked in. Now, I’m looking at another hurricane season coming up when I’m probably going to be engaged in [rebanding], and I’d prefer not to be.”

From an operational perspective, Lewis said one of the biggest challenges to date has been getting access to radios during the planned time period.

On one occasion, several local police and fire departments arrived for rebanding without the equipment they were supposed to have with them. Agencies also have been know to show up “on a day when we had another agency scheduled and expect to be able to swap out their equipment while we were trying to swap out 500 or 600 pieces of equipment for a larger agency,” she said. “They didn’t stick to the schedule.”