Officials: County’s emergency radio system failing

  • The Shelburne Falls State Police Barracks and Shelburne Dispatch on Route 2 in Shelburne. February 18, 2019 Staff Photo/PAUL FRANZ

Staff Writer
Published: 2/18/2019 10:42:35 PM

Plans are in the works to overhaul Franklin County’s emergency communications system – that is said to be outdated and poorly designed.

“To put it bluntly, the current system is failing,” Franklin Regional Council of Governments wrote in October.

Late last month, about 80 town officials met with FRCOG planners to review two possible ways to replace the county’s radio communications system, Dan Nietsche, FRCOG emergency preparedness coordinator said. These options include building a countywide network or joining the statewide system.

Franklin County’s communications system runs on a lower frequency than the statewide network. The current network runs on a frequency of 450 MHz, while the state system operates on a frequency of 800 MHz. If towns build their own network, that frequency would remain the same. Nietsche said that while a lower frequency may “penetrate buildings and follow the hills and valleys a little better,” both frequencies are capable of the same level of coverage.

The FRCOG is scheduled to meet with Hawley officials on Feb. 26 to test radios using a frequency of 800 MHz, Selectboard Member HussainHamdan said. According to Hamdan, similar tests taken in Hawley last year had poor results. This year, however, technical changes have been made, and tests may yield different results.

Migrating to the state system could be less costly for Franklin County, as the Mass. Executive Office of Public Safety and Security may contribute to the county’s upgrade as part of its statewide project, according to the FRCOG. If Franklin County rebuilds its own communications system, towns would be entirely responsible for the costs, which were projected at $8 million to $10 million by the FRCOG last October.

“It is expected that it will cost us less to go with the state system, but we don’t know the final dollar amount that the state would request from us,” Nietsche said. “We don’t know if they’re going to ask for any funds — it could be free, it could be cost-sharing.”

Charlemont Selectboard member Marguerite Willis said that Franklin County towns are “split” on the issue.

“There’s two camps on this. I don’t know how it’s going to play out,” Willis said. “But, they need to resolve it, some sort of decision has to be made. This is police, fire and ambulance. This is serious.”

According to Hamdan, Hawley will make a decision according to “what direction the county decides to take, what our emergency responders need to operate effectively and what we can afford.”

Hamdan said the problem needs to be addressed “in the next couple of years, if not sooner,” as the system is “degrading rapidly.”

Problems with the county communications system are well-established. The system has exceeded its life expectancy by at least two years, according to the FRCOG. System components expected to last seven to 10 years are an average of 12 years old. Some components are no longer sold or serviced by manufacturers. To keep the system afloat, some parts are being sourced from online, Willis said.

“If push comes to shove — which it will — they will cannibalize. They’ll figure out one tower they can get away with not having, and they’ll cannibalize,” Willis said.

The FRCOG hired an employee in December to manage the current communications system, Nietsche said.

As well as being outdated, the county communications system is poorly designed, according to FRCOG. The system has the wrong type of antennas, for example, and towers are located in non-optimal areas.

The FRCOG is currently sourcing funding for the project, regardless of which option towns choose, Nietsche said.

Next, the FRCOG expects to hold another county meeting after the state provides information and costs for both options, Nietsche said. At this meeting, they can give the FRCOG a consensus if they choose.

“It’s not a FRCOG decision, it’s the communities’ decision,” Nietsche said.

You can reach Grace Bird at:

413 772 0261 ext. 280

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