Story County seeks consultant for emergency communications system upgrade

Austin Harrington Staff Writer

Story County officials are currently working out the details to upgrade a decades-old emergency communications system that could cost the county between $6 million and $10 million.

The county’s E911 board is in the process of sending out requests for proposals to different consultants that have experience in working with emergency systems used by first responders, such as paramedics and fire departments.

According to Story County Supervisor Martin Chitty, who also sits on the E911 board, the county, as well as most areas of the state, is currently experiencing issues that restrict the county’s dispatch center from reaching some rural fire departments by radio or pager during an emergency.

“If you went up Highway 65 from Colo to Zearing, we have three repeaters in the county. We have one that sits on an ag business there that cannot get signal strength range to McCallsburg, which is a town not quite six miles,” Chitty said.

If repeaters, which extend the radio signal’s range, don’t operate correctly, then then emergency responders are not notified properly.

“We are looking to do a complete technology refresh on a system that has been operating since 1986. It is that old, it is that elderly and we are having signal saturation and signal penetration deficiencies that are not going to clear themselves up without a solid investment,” Chitty said.

According to Chitty, it depends on where a person is at in the county to know which problem they will experience.

“You have two different issues that you’re dealing with because you have signal saturation in the greater whole of the eastern part of the county where you have blind spots and the agencies themselves, your volunteers, are left with having to use their cellphones as back-up systems because maybe the pager is not getting it done,” Chitty said. “Then you move into the west side of the county in the Ames, Iowa State venues, then you’re looking for signal strength to punch through the buildings,” Chitty said.

Chitty said that some departments working in Ames have said that even if an emergency responder is wearing a radio, the signal might not be powerful enough to go through walls and reach the responders once they are inside a building.

Chitty said that the board is currently looking at possible system improvements and speaking with experts in the field to see what will be needed to upgrade the system in a way that will cover a lot of the deficiencies that have been found in the county.

“Right now, we are doing the interview process,” Chitty said.

Chitty said that each possible platform offers different options, and all of those options need to be weighed against the state working on a statewide system that would allow counties and cities to communicate on a wider basis.

“The thing is, we’re not looking for a system that only meets the confines of Story, because our agencies respond outside on sharing agreements,” Chitty said.

Colo Fire Chief Dennis Clatt said he hasn’t experienced some of the problems that places like Story City and Zearing have dealt with, but he has had issues when working outside of the county.

“Personally with Colo, we respond quite often to Marshall County and assist in Marshall County and right now, with what I have, it’s hard to communicate,” Clatt said.

Clatt said that some of that problem has been that Marshall County has already completed a system upgrade and now the Colo radios will no longer work with that system. Clatt added that Colo is among the departments in the county that uses an app on their cellphones as a backup system when the radios aren’t able to be reached by the dispatch center. For now, that has been an acceptable work-around in many cases.

Clatt said that even though he hasn’t had some of the problems that other departments have had in the county, he’s still looking forward to the eventual upgrade.

“With an upgrade to that system, if we do a digital route, it will be a quicker…reception, hopefully the coverage will be better. I think it will benefit EMS, fire, the paramedic services in the county,” Clatt said.

Chitty said that the county is still trying to work out what it would cost for the county as a whole and each individual community that wants to be involved. He said the idea he likes best is that the cities or areas of the county that would use the system the most, would pay the most.

“If you’re getting the most use out of it and the most benefit out of it, maybe you should be looking to do a bit more of the financial lift out of it,” Chitty said.

Chitty said that he hopes to have a consultant chosen by next week and that will begin the process of deciding which route to take when it comes to a platform that will ultimately be used within Story County. But he could not give an approximate date for that process to begin, or when the system upgrade could possibly take place in Story County.