State officials share progress in study of radio system update

  • The Greenfield Police Department dispatch operated by Megan Cullen on Wednesday. STAFF PHOTO/DAN LITTLE

Staff Writer
Published: 9/13/2019 7:00:44 PM
Modified: 9/13/2019 7:00:32 PM

GREENFIELD — A first look at how Franklin County first responders might transition to the statewide radio system is showing promise, with a feasibility study expected to conclude by the end of October.

Because much of the current Franklin County Emergency Communication System is outdated and no longer manufactured or serviced, according to Deerfield Police Chief John Paciorek Jr., the Executive Office of Technology Services and Security is exploring transitioning Franklin County to the statewide system, Commonwealth of Massachusetts Interoperable Radio System.

To explain how the two systems differ, Paciorek said the current system works like a radio station in your car — as you leave a coverage area, warning signs, like distorted sound, occur before the signal cuts out completely. By contrast, with the statewide system, the sound is clear until you leave a service area and the signal cuts out, he said.

In the current system, one talking group — or two people — can speak to each other at one time on a single frequency, Paciorek said. On the statewide system, four talking groups — or eight people — can speak separately and without interfering with each other on a single frequency.

Another way to think about it, according to Dan Nietsche, emergency preparedness coordinator with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments, is like a highway.

“You have a 50-foot wide space to put a highway,” he said, which can fit four lanes of traffic. Technology within the statewide system is like putting “eight lanes in that single amount of space.”

Paciorek and Nietsche were among the attendees at a Sept. 5 meeting offered by the Executive Office of Technology Services and Security at Greenfield Community College. State representatives updated local first responders on the ongoing feasibility study, promised a program to update and subsidize new radios and answered questions.

Executive Office of Technology Services and Security Secretary Curtis M. Wood stressed the importance of emergency radio communication, and said that although “the need is there across the state” for updated systems, Franklin County’s “situation is more imminent” due to the infrastructure’s deterioration.

“Five years ago, Franklin County was getting the scraps” of the state’s attention and money for emergency communication, Nietsche said. But once local officials presented evidence of the county’s dire situation to the Executive Office of Technology Services and Security, the state “made us a priority, jumping ahead of other parts of the state,” he said.

Nietsche said that within a few years, the hope is that the Franklin County system will be decommissioned, meaning that towns that don’t move to the statewide system will need to build and maintain their own radio infrastructure.

The executive office’s study, which started 10 months ago, is examining the feasibility and logistics of using the statewide system in Franklin County, and is expected to be finished in October. Nietsche explained that radio towers compatible with the statewide system are already located in Franklin County, including in Charlemont, Colrain, Shelburne and Sunderland. The towers were installed more than five years ago for State Police, which does use the statewide system locally.

During the Sept. 5 presentation, state representatives presented some of their current findings, like radio coverage maps of Franklin County, which showed the system would cover 82 percent of the geography and 89 percent of the population.

“We’ve had a good range of service, but we want to be able to maintain and enhance (it),” said Scott Bailey of the Executive Office of Technology Services and Security.

“What we’ve seen on the (statewide) system is better than what we have now,” Paciorek said, adding that there is still room for improvement in coverage.

While the radios that police, fire and emergency medical services (EMS) departments currently use on the Franklin County system won’t work on the statewide system, presenters highlighted two radios — a Motorola and Kenwood — that will work on the statewide system as well as the Franklin County system, with a software upgrade.

The Executive Office of Technology Services and Security is offering a one-time program to help towns purchase radios to replace their existing inventory. For each radio, the state will provide $2,700, the price of the Kenwood radio. The Motorola radio costs around $3,300, and the difference will need to be covered by each municipality, Bailey said.

Funding for radio subsidies and the statewide system comes from a surcharge on phone bills, Wood said. An order from the Department of Telecommunications increased the surcharge from $1 to $1.50 from 2019 until 2024. The surcharge should create $25 million in funding per year, Wood said.

However, state officials didn’t explain how paging, a means to alert first responders to emergencies, would occur on the statewide system, noting that engineers are evaluating how paging might work post-upgrade. The local system would continue to serve as the primary paging platform until a suitable alternative is available.

For Northfield EMS Chief Mark Fortier, paging was one of the questions that he had going into the meeting.

“That’s still an open question,” Fortier said, adding that he’s unphased by the lack of answer at the moment. “I think that we’re not alone in this world using a system like this,” he said, adding that he is sure a solution will arise.

Greenfield Fire Chief Robert Strahan asked if “the ability to talk radio-to-radio,” like a walkie-talkie, between first responders located near each other, would be possible on the statewide system. Paciorek explained there are three radio frequencies dedicated for this purpose.

For towns that coordinate their emergency services across state lines, the radios on the statewide system would not be compatible with those in other states.

However, this did not worry Joe Cuneo, fire chief of both Wendell and New Salem who also represents Tri-State Mutual Aid. Cuneo said it’s likely those first responders will have to carry radios compatible with Massachusetts’ statewide system in addition to those that work across state lines, noting that any change requires flexibility.

“Certainly we can adapt and deal with (changes),” he said.

Reach Maureen O’Reilly at 413-772-0261, ext. 280 or moreilly@recorder.com.




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