June 29, 2002
Essex County’s emergency radio system needs replacing, officials say
Essex County (N.Y.) has an antiquated emergency communications system that doesn’t even work in some towns, local officials agree.
They say the 1950s-era radio system should be replaced, and one way to do it might be to sign on as a pilot county for the new Statewide Wireless System. That state-funded project will use 800 MHz frequencies to tie in state agencies and local emergency services like police, fire, and ambulance.
An alternative would be for the county to switch to better frequencies the new Wireless System will use, in anticipation of the system’s two-to-four-year construction schedule.
“We are on low-band (radio) now, and that frequency on its very best day will cover 60 percent of Essex County. On the average, it is probably less than 50 percent,” said County Emergency Services Director Raymond Thatcher.
“The reason for that, I feel, is because when we first started this system back in the 1950s, it did cover all of Essex County. But with the advent of cellular phones and the hardwired telephones, computers and other equipment, the harmonic that our frequency is on, 46.320 (MHz), is the same as the telephone company’s, and that causes us some major problems.”
He said computers also generate radio interference.
“There is so much equipment out there that we just cannot continue to operate our system,” Thatcher said. “Right now we have no communications with Keene Valley for fire and emergency medical services if they are at their fire station or in that general vicinity.
“It is just an ongoing problem; we are spending a lot of money just trying to keep the system going. It is falling apart more every day. I can’t emphasize how bad it is. We are living on borrowed time, we really are.”
Thatcher met with Statewide Wireless System officials and thinks he has a solution.
“They indicated to me that they are going to go with 800 MHz in Essex County, which really surprised me, because the number of (antenna) towers that are required for that is going to be phenomenal,” he said.
“They are telling me that they are going to do 97 percent of highway coverage on 800 MHz, and they are going to do an overlay with VHF high-band for those areas that they can’t pick up on 800 MHz.”
The 800 MHz band has less range and is considered line-of-sight, whereas VHF low-band and high-band frequencies follow the curvature of the earth and transmit further.
Since the Statewide Wireless System will use high-band frequencies as part of a dual system, Thatcher believes switching Essex County to high-band radios would solve the interference problem.
Essex County is one of 16 in the state that have asked to be pilot counties, meaning the system would be installed there first.
“If we could get them to sponsor us as a pilot county, it would certainly save us a lot of money up-front,” Thatcher said.
“We are still going to have to expend a fair amount of money, there is no question about that.”
If Essex County intends to install additional radio towers, it might have a problem with Adirondack Park Agency approval, said Supervisor George Canon (R-Newcomb).
“If we are going to need a lot of towers under this 800 MHz program, they had better start that process now,” Canon said.
The county recently had to get Park Agency approval for a tower in Lewis that had not been permitted when it was installed 20 years ago.
“With the issues we have dealt with on the after-the-fact permit for our other tower on Wells Hill, the paperwork that (County Attorney) Rick (Meyer) had to do, it is just phenomenal for one little tower,” Thatcher said.
“(So) we didn’t intend to establish any new tower sites.”
County Public Safety Chairman Gerald Morrow (D-Chesterfield) said he agrees with Thatcher’s plan. A new VHF high-band system would help towns like Newcomb, Minerva, Keene and Schroon, where radio coverage from the present system is often poor, he said.
“There is a way to do it, where we won’t be wasting any equipment when the state does come through,” he said.
Supervisor Walter Rushby Jr. (R-Moriah) is concerned about the cost of a new radio system. No estimates have been developed yet for a replacement high-band system.
“I just don’t know how Essex County is going to go this alone, without the state or federal government being involved,” Rushby said.
“I know we need better communications, but for us to go out ahead of the state plan right now, I would be reluctant. … hopefully we can get some grant money and some assistance from state and federal governments.”
Thatcher doesn’t want to buy new equipment that would soon be obsolete anyway.
“My recommendation is not to do an outright purchase, but to lease the equipment,” he said.
“With technology developing so rapidly today, I would rather have a piece of equipment that we can replace in five years under a lease, instead of going out and purchasing and having a piece of antiquated equipment that we are going to have for another 20 years.”
Thatcher’s next step will be to present his plan to the County Board of Supervisors, probably with Statewide Wireless System officials in attendance.
Lohr McKinstry can be reached by email: [email protected]
(Copyright 2002, Plattsburgh Publishing Co., Plattsburgh, N.Y., a division of Ottaway Newspapers, Inc., Campbell Hall, N.Y. All rights reserved. Republished with permission.)