Upgrading Ulster Emergency Communications Could Cost $27 Million

Sep 12, 2012

Ulster County is bringing its emergency radio communication systems into the 21st Century.

Blue Wing Consulting, based in Minnesota, made a detailed technical presentation to the county legislature at a special meeting held Tuesday night in Kingston. The company made a similar presentation earlier Tuesday in neighboring Sullivan County.

Blue Wing was hired two years ago, tasked with polling various departments and finding an affordable solution to coverage, cost, and interoperability problems.

“Most of the fire and EMS responders in the survey felt their system was in need of help,” explained Blue Wing principal Mark Hoffay. “If you can't get the page, you don't know you got a call,” he said.

The current antiquated system used by first responders is over 40 years old.

Due to high costs and other factors, counties tend to group services together into local consortiums, occasionally sharing frequencies and towers.  At the same time, neighboring counties and municipalities must compete for channels, tower locations, and grant funding, the consultants told lawmakers.

Blue Wing presenter Lee Palmer stated that his company provides the plan, but is not involved in bidding for the equipment contracts, thus avoiding conflicts of interest.

Interoperability – the ability for multiple agencies to use the same band simultaneously – is one of the key considerations explored by Blue Wing.

Another challenge is to provide a signal strong enough to be received by police, firefighters and EMS workers while operating inside buildings.

For Ulster County, existing UHF and VHF frequencies should remain along outlying western areas; with a newfangled 800 MHz solution deployed along the more populated Thruway and Route 28 corridors.

The consultants noted that emergency radio communication systems are a standalone platform distinct from cell phones, requiring their own separate FCC licenses.  They are not used by the general public.

Cell phone surcharges, mandated to pay for emergency communications, are taxed by New York State. “They give back but a pittance to the individual counties,” said Arthur Snyder, the emergency management director for Ulster County.

According to Snyder, Ulster imposes 30 cents per month on each cell phone bill, and New York takes another $1.20.

Out of $200 million collected annually, Ulster receives only $100,000. Another $9 million is competed for by counties statewide.

“The rest of that money is going off into other parts of the state budget,” Snyder said. “It's attacked by legislatures as an unfair and inequitable distribution of a surcharge, for a service that's provided at the county level,” Snyder said.

Most counties pay for their entire radio upgrades out of pocket, the consultants said.

Blue Wing estimates a new system can be in operating by the end of 2014, if all agencies support the proposal, and if the legislature approves the plan.

A full replacement suggested by the consultants, while still on the drawing board, utilizes more modern frequencies, expanding coverage area from 20 percent to nearly 90 percent of the county's geography. Fourteen new transmission stations, thousands of portable radios, licenses, and various equipment platforms carry a price tag approaching $27.2 million.

Other counties throughout New York have spent similar amounts, the technicians noted, depending on their population, geographic size, and bandwidth needs.