Luzerne County 911 Executive Director Fred Rosencrans pointed to televisions to convey the need to upgrade from an analog to digital emergency radio system.
Speaking at a recent county council work session, Rosencrans surmised nobody in the room still uses a 20-year-old television.
“If you wouldn’t keep a 20-year-old television, why would you keep a 20-year-old analog radio system for public safety where it’s critical?” Rosencrans asked.
The proposed communication system overhaul will cost an estimated $19.26 million.
A consultant has said the switch to digital system is crucial because the radio transmitters and receivers that allow emergency responders to exchange messages will become obsolete in 2020.
Rosencrans furnished a 2012 letter alerting the county that support for the county’s analog system will end Dec. 31, 2020.
The system won’t automatically shut down on that date, but replacement parts have become increasingly difficult to find because the county’s current system is no longer manufactured, he said.
A pressing concern is the county’s inability to manage users of the analog system, he said.
“You could go out and buy a radio tomorrow, add it to our system and cause interference, and I can’t track it,” Rosencrans said.
He told council the Federal Communications Commission is actively investigating his report of a recent unauthorized interception.
A digital system could be locked down, allowing access only if 911 staff programs the radios, he said. The technology also would alleviate the burden on his staff because the radios could be programmed “over the air” in less time, he said.
County officials have said borrowing may be necessary to fund some or all of the project because it is highly unlikely any state funding will help pay for the switch.
Councilman Harry Haas asked if any funding has been identified.
Rosencrans said the administration was recently denied a requested $10 million state grant, which had a $5 million county match, and there are “really no avenues” for funding this type of project.
Municipalities can help offset the county cost because they can seek gaming grants or other awards not available to the county, he said.
Police and emergency responders throughout the county would need to change their portable and mobile radio equipment so it is compatible with the new county system, county officials have said. Municipalities typically have covered the cost of radio communication equipment used by local law enforcement and emergency services, while county officials fund overall upgrades, officials have said.
County Manager C. David Pedri said the county has some outstanding bonds that could be refinanced this year and in 2019, possibly generating savings earmarked for the 911 project.
The administration will “leave no stone unturned” and present options, Pedri said.
“This council won’t have a gun to its head to make some decisions, but it is something that has to be looked at,” Pedri said.
Due to the the complexity of the system and quantity of users, a funding plan should be identified in six months, Rosencrans said. If the project commenced now, the county would have difficulty meeting the 2020 deadline.
Radio upgrades are the “last piece” of the system that must be addressed, he said. The county’s 911 system will mark its 20th anniversary in June.
Rosencrans also discussed staffing, saying council’s 2016 decision to increase the starting salary of 911 telecommunicators from $25,500 to $32,000 has yielded results.
The center received 400 applications for 12 vacant positions, including 20 prospective hires with emergency management experience, he said.
“It’s a total 180 from what I was facing four years ago,” Rosencrans said.