The Board of Directors of the St. Francois County Joint Communications Center, which provides 911 calls for St. Francois and Ste. Genevieve Counties, at their Wednesday morning meeting, voted to move forward with massive upgrades that could cost up to $4.1 million and that their consulting firm says will significantly improve the unity, quality and response time of emergency services because of improved communications would.
For more than 90 minutes, the board members walked through logistics, finances and the process by which Center Director Alan Wells will lead the project, which would affect communications for law enforcement, fire and rescue units in the two boroughs.
Board member Ginger Taylor, chair of the 911 Center Budget and Finance Committee, said the size and value of the project to taxpayers made the extra time and focus during the discussion, which was marked with questions about the cost of the additional radios , to a need towers and for the $125,000 consulting firm fee, which would be included in the estimated $4.1 million cost.
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“This back and forth is because this board has never taken anything lightly,” Taylor said late in the talks. “You know, we’re looking at every possible option to make sure we’re making the best informed decision that applies to our counties. We take our job and our roles very seriously.”
Assistant Director Chuck Farr presented a PowerPoint slideshow based on insights from Rey Freeman Communications Consulting that showed that the cellular, handheld, and pager radios used by St. Francois County authorities vary by make, model, and—most importantly – Ages and abilities varied widely, some from the 2000s. Most radios are purely analogue, with very little sporting P25 capabilities.
P25 is key to the project – Project 25 is the next phase of digital communications for first responders, but the technology can work backwards and forwards with both analog and digital radios and allows for encryption so that crucial communications between first responders are not the Case intercepted by third party. The flexibility of the P25 technology has led to a wide variety of radio manufacturers, which should allow for better price competition.
In updating first responders’ communication skills, the consultancy found that approximately 50% of existing radios could be used with a new system. Sufficient upgrading of all radios to P25 digital technology that would allow responders to communicate regardless of the thickness or density of building materials – such as metal roofs or concrete block structures common in healthcare facilities and schools – would be in addition to the 4.1 US Dollars about $1.5 million cost millions for the improved radio system equipment and services, expanded mast locations and various important things like FCC license fees and system training.
The $4.1 million option was a mid-range option, the board members rejected the patchwork option to upgrade the analog simulcast and the “Cadillac” option of the P25 bundle simulcast, which requires more expensive radios and equipment, that would have added $326,000 to the final price.
“It (the digital P25 option) will greatly enhance what we’re trying to do now,” Farr said during the presentation. “And the radio coverage will be much better than it is now. We would be doing multi-site simulcasts, meaning we’re going to be broadcasting from all of these additional Tower sites, not just here at 911 or Simms Mountain. It will greatly enhance what we are trying to do now. You can’t imagine how good it’s going to be.”
Board member David Pratte, who chairs ISO’s 911 center committee, said fire chiefs were already discussing the P25 route.
“After last month’s meeting, we had a fire chiefs and officers meeting, we’re all trying to get a FEMA grant that would get all fire departments on P25 radios,” he said. “Two counties are interested, St. Francois and Ste. Gen. If some of the other counties are interested, we might seek a regional grant. We want to work concurrently with this project in the P25 area and be ready to move forward.”
Wells noted that while improvements to Simms Mountain Tower helped, new, more solid building designs threatened the efficiency and effectiveness of older communications technology.
“Even if we just changed all these cell phones and wearables and extenders for everyone, look at an investment of almost $8 million,” he said. “So this is the best option and will allow us to improve and save lives and property – and protect our responders.”
After board members agree to proceed with P25’s mid-range digital option and continue to work with Rey Freeman Communications, Wells will begin reviewing financing options that may be presented to members for approval.
Funding for the 911 center was stabilized earlier this year, and voters made permanent its sales tax funding mechanism, which would have gone under after a previous bond issue that undertook renovations, expansions and improvements to the center at Park Hills Industrial Park. The bonds were redeemed earlier than planned.
In another store, Desloge Board Member and Police Commissioner James “Jebo” Bullock announced that on September 30 from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. police officers, emergency responders and firefighters will be invited to North County High School for training drills related to active shooting. He said about 40 people have already registered for the free hands-on exercise.
Sarah Haas is Associate Editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at 573-518-3617 or [email protected]