So, you’re having trouble getting permission to build one new guyed tower? The local zoning commission has banded with those pesky NIMBYs to shut down your project, and they’re deaf to the argument that a 480-foot tower can be made aesthetically pleasing? What do you do? For starters, you can dry your eyes and thank the frequency fairy that your problem is only 1/181st of the zoning nightmare that faced the Michigan State Police (MSP).
To replace its nearly 60-year-old state public safety communications system, and to take advantage of the 800MHz spectrum, the MSP joined forces with Motorola to design the Michigan Public Safety Communications System (MPSCS), the first statewide Project 25-compliant communications system-and they needed 181 new tower sites to do it.
Split up among four phases, the system is scheduled to be completed in Spring 2002. Phase I consists of Southeast Michigan and is already up and running. Phase II is made up of the southwest portion of the state and was completed in September 1999. In June, Phase III became the latest portion of the project to be completed (ahead of schedule), and it consists of the upper half of lower Michigan. The Upper Peninsula makes up Phase IV, scheduled to be online in Spring 2002.
The project, now 75% complete, represents a new breed of public safety communications system. With 181 sites-an increase of 100 towers from the original system-its sheer size is intimidating, yet dimensions alone cannot tell the whole story. With the upgrade to the new digital system, any subscribing police department in Michigan can “dial up” any other subscriber throughout the state from its mobile units. That means Officer Jones in the Upper Peninsula and Officer Smith in the state capitol at Lansing can talk to each other as if they were only one street apart.
Whether the state had decided to build a communications system of this size or not, everyone involved agreed something needed to be done to update the antiquated system that was in place. MSP Capt. Tom Miller said that in addition to the “dead spots” that users were experiencing, replacement parts for the old system were becoming increasingly difficult to find, and only three of the original 81 towers were in compliance with Michigan OSHA standards.
“We couldn’t maintain part of our infrastructure,” Miller said. “So it had gotten to a critical stage.”
Once it was decided that something needed to be done, the next question was, “What?” After enlisting the consulting services of Sachs/Freeman Associates in the mid-1980s, the state chose to construct a statewide system based on Project 25 standards, despite the fact that the set of standards had yet to be completed.
Vendor wanted Contracting the project to an outside vendor was the next step, and according to Miller, signing with Motorola was simply a matter of finding someone that could give the state what they needed.
“We chose (Motorola) because of their ability to meet the specs of the RFP,” he said. “We had one other vendor, but they weren’t able to meet the specifications.”
The purpose and scope of the system has evolved gradually over the last 16 years. Originally conceived in 1984 with the intent to serve only the state police, it has now expanded to provide the department of corrections, the department of social services and the natural resources law enforcement division-not to mention any local police department that wishes to use it-with digital communications capability.
As the state saw the price for the new system rise, it also saw an opportunity to share out some of the cost.
“As the original studies came back and there was a realization of what it was going to cost to replace it, the idea then was that we would open it up, and the system would be made available to the other state agencies as well as local government,” Miller said.
Miller was quick to point out, however, that the state was not interested in having the county police and sheriffs’ departments pay for the state’s new toy. But with a price tag of more than $187 million, any help was appreciated.
“The realization is that the cost of operating this system in large part will be borne by the state, and whatever local agencies we can put on the system will help, but it will never subsidize the entire cost of the system,” he said. “That wasn’t the goal. The goal of the system was to build a statewide communications system for public safety.”
Joining the system is not cheap. The Motorola portable radios and mobile radio base units that work with the new technology run for close to $3,000 each, and users must pay a one-time start up fee of $250 per radio as well as a $300-per-year charge for programming and maintenance costs. Joining the system has even been cost-prohibitive for some of the smaller local agencies throughout the state. Police in Wayne County have had to collect close to $4 million through a surcharge levied on 9-1-1 systems in the area to afford to subscribe.
Small town solution However, Capt. James Caygill said the cost to join the system was well worth it for the Huron Township Police Department. Huron was in the market for a new system after deciding that its 20-year-old lowband system was in need of an upgrade. The state’s offer to join the new statewide system contributed to Caygill’s department’s decision to subscribe.
Although the radios are costly, Caygill said that what a department pays for the radios, it makes up for by not having to build new towers. The state has estimated the cost of building a tower site at between $200,000 and $600,000. Huron Township needed only one new tower for its area, but that’s one more than Caygill wanted to build. Subscribers to the state’s system are not responsible for building new sites and are not charged for using the towers.
“In my opinion, ‘Why do we want to reinvent the wheel?'” Caygill said. “Not only that, but we, as a smaller agency than the state police, have the opportunity to be aboard something that has the expertise of the world behind it.”
Motorola provides all of the necessary equipment and handles the programming of the system, and the company trained Huron’s officers. Caygill said that having the assistance and security of Motorola’s experienced staff has made the transition a relatively painless process.
“Normally, when you put in something new like this, you expect to have a lot of problems,” he said. “Now I know the state may have had some problems when they first went online, but when we went online, our people were trained and ready.”
NIMBY and Brer Rabbit Foremost among the problems the state faced in installing the system was the siting of new towers. When building 181 new towers, some opposition from local zoning commissions is to be expected, but the state was ill-prepared for the hurdle it would face in completing the infrastructure construction.
“When we negotiated the contract, we were told by the state that the state is exempt from local zoning ordinances,” Chuck Cousino, Motorola’s project director assigned to the MPSCS, said. “The people from the state believed that. We got challenged on it. The state got challenged on it by a township and lost the challenge in court.”
The suit in question that threatened to shut the project down was raised by the Addison Township of Oakland County in June 1996. The township claimed that placing a tower in the location stipulated by the specifications of the system would violate local ordinance restrictions on both location and tower height. The Oakland County Circuit Court granted the township an injunction that was upheld on appeal.
“As you might expect, this created a huge concern on everybody’s part, because without the exemption, it would be very difficult to build the system at all,” Cousino said.
The roadblock would not last for long, however. On behalf of the state police and Motorola, the state legislature enacted Public Act 538 in 1996, which overrules local zoning ordinances and eases the process of tower siting. Under the act, if a local zoning authority does not approve of the location that the state wishes to build on, it must offer an equivalent site within 30 days of notification. If an alternate site is not provided, the state may build on the original proposed site.
“It gives us a mechanism to move through the zoning process with local governments and not get hung up in a lot of public debate and discussions over whether a tower should be built,” Miller said. “If they don’t want it there, the onus is on them to provide an alternative location within 30 days.”
Cousino admits that zoning problems were the most challenging issue that Motorola and the state faced, and he was not surprised that reared its ugly head.
“It would be nice if every time an engineer said, ‘Oh, I’d like a site at this coordinate’ we could send somebody out and say, ‘Look, there’s a for sale sign right there,” he said. “Never do we get a piece of property where we point.”
Upgrades on the go Siting issues have not been the only concern for the state police and Motorola. Not surprisingly for a project of this size, upgrades and renovations have already been necessary before the system has been completed. When the project was originally contracted out to Motorola in 1994, the Project 25 standards had yet to be completed, but the contract stipulated that Motorola would conduct the necessary upgrades once the final specifications were determined. According to Miller, equipment upgrades are the most difficult part of the process, logistically.
“Logistics become a big issue,” Miller said. “We saw that when we had to upgrade the first phase that wasn’t built to the APCO 25 standard, and when we had to go back and do the upgrade, we had to actually touch all of the radios to upgrade them.”
There is no master switch to throw when conducting such an upgrade. In fact, more than 4,000 radios had to be “touched” as part of the Phase I upgrade. The process will begin again when the state finishes contract negotiations with Motorola to upgrade the current system to Motorola’s new 6.0 platform for integrated voice and data.
“It’s going to be significant-almost a 15% increase in the cost of this project-to do this upgrade,” Miller said. “It’s something we’re trying to look at from a long-term planning standpoint. We’re looking at building up a sort of revolving fund that would provide us the funding we would need to keep up with the technology upgrades that we’ll need to keep the system as state-of-the-art as possible.”
A meeting of the minds As problems have arisen throughout the build-out, Cousino said the most important thing that kept the project moving was the contract the two sides had signed. Issues and discrepancies were bound to come up, but with a contract that both sides could refer to, most problems were dealt with swiftly.
“The strength of investing the time upfront in a solid contract is probably the single biggest thing that got reinforced,” Cousino said. “Because there’s a tendency to say ‘Let’s get on with this so we can actually get started building.’ You should never give in to that tendency.”
In addition to the contract, Miller said that having executive sponsorship made the project run more smoothly. He admits that without the support of the governor’s office and the state legislature, the system might never have been completed. Having the government’s support made the ratification of the all-important site acquisition act possible.
“We’ve been very fortunate here that we’ve had very strong support from our legislature and our executive office,” Miller said. “That’s really made this thing a success that we wouldn’t have had if we hadn’t gotten the sponsorship.”
Settling in Although system upgrades will always be necessary to keep up with technological advances, Miller is confident that the state will not have to deal with zoning authorities for a long time to come. The system was built with the expectation that it would last for several decades.
“We believe from an infrastructure standpoint that these towers will be around a long, long time,” Miller said. “Those will be around for at least 40 years. The electronics component of it (I believe that the way technology is), we’re going to have to look at upgrades periodically.”
Cousino is even more optimistic.
“We’ve got hi-rod, solid-member, galvanized towers, Miller buildings that have very, very strong specs and very aggressive specifications to them,” he said. “They’ll be around for 100 years.”
Regardless of whether technological advances make the system obsolete, both sides believe that they have built the foundation for a positive working relationship suitable for addressing issues and concerns in the future.
“The relationship with the state is the thing we’re most proud of,” Cousino said. “The fact is, the state has been very accommodating, and we feel very good about the relationship we have with them. We get a hurdle, we find it, we sit down, we solve it and we move on.”