New plan for Dane County radio system could cost smaller localities

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Posted by on July 17, 2010 at 11:10:28:

An alternative proposal for upgrading Dane County's radio system would be less expensive and allow seamless communication between county law enforcement, but could cost smaller municipalities more than a previous deal they rejected.

Dane County and Madison officials are considering a $24.5 million system, of which Madison would pay $8 million.

The city would operate and maintain the new system and bill users annually on a per radio basis at a yet-to-be-determined rate. The city currently charges users $105 per radio per year.

Under a previous proposal, the county would have paid all of the $30 million capital cost for the new system. However, smaller municipalities disagreed with a cost-sharing plan for about $1.5 million in annual upkeep.

"I don't know if they were doing a political calculation, but it was a bad one," County Board Chairman Scott McDonell said. "This system is better, but it may cost them a little more."

The new proposal is cheaper because it calls for all law enforcement agencies in Dane County to switch to an 800 MHz system, which Madison currently uses and is better suited for urban areas. The previous proposal allowed the Sheriff's Office and small suburban and rural agencies to use a VHF frequency system and would have created a seamless interface between the two systems.

The Dane County Fire Chiefs Association is criticizing the proposal because it wouldn't require fire and EMS radio users to join the 800 MHz system. Surrounding counties also use VHF frequencies.

Neighboring counties may not be on the 800 MHz system. That means the DeForest police officer who provided back-up in a recent officer-involved shooting in Columbia County would not have been able to communicate directly with Columbia County dispatchers unless he had two radios, Fitchburg Fire Chief Randy Pickering said.

"When you get down into the details (of the $24.5 million proposal), it turns out that idea creates some issues that we don't have today," Pickering said.

Pickering said the goal of the original system was to improve coverage, capacity and the ability of agencies to communicate with each other. The Fire Chiefs Association is recommending a $6.8 million minimum upgrade that wouldn't improve the current system, but it wouldn't make it worse, Pickering said.

The $6.8 million upgrade would achieve the minimum requirements for a federal mandate that must be met by the end of 2012.

Madison's 800 MHz radio system already complies with the federal mandate, which is partly why Madison didn't endorsed the county's $30 million proposal. However, Madison's system doesn't allow it to communicate directly with agencies in the county that use VHF systems. Madison police officers who travel too far from the city are also unable to use their radios, Madison radio coordinator Keith Lippert said.

Madison anticipates spending between $12 million and $15 million between 2017 and 2025 on a new radio system. The current system was built in 1999 and systems tend to last 18 to 25 years, Lippert said.

(By MATTHEW DeFOUR | Wisconsin State Journal)

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