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Tuesday, May 3, 2016

2012 starts with government rush to meet 2013 deadline

Sunday, January 15, 2012

In the past year, the Morriston Volunteer Fire Department has purchased 16 new "narrow band" two-way radios. By Jan. 1, 2013, all first responders must use new communications systems. Photo by Richard Irby
Police, emergency responders and government agencies were put on notice 20 years ago, and, in 2004, they were given a deadline to meet.

But many Arkansas agencies and counties will spend 2012 rushing to make sure they have "narrow band" two way radios and towers in use by Jan. 1, 2013. Failure to comply could cause interference with other emergency communication systems, and result in hefty federal fines.

For decades, law enforcement, fire departments, street departments and others who need radio communication have used VHF (Very High Frequency) equipment.

The Federal Communications Commission began work years ago to switch to "narrow band" radios, which, as their name implies, take up less space on the radio spectrum.

Even after setting the Jan. 1, 2013 deadline for conversion nine years ago, some users kept the issue of updated radios on the backburner because of the cost of replacing equipment.

As of the end of 2011, about 40 percent of Arkansas counties and public safety agencies have yet to make the switch to narrow band. Izard County is among the counties with work to do.

"We've still got a long way to go, but I think we'll work out something by this fall," said Bill Beebe, Director of the Izard County Office of Emergency Management.

When David Sherrell took over as Izard County Judge in January of 2011, he put obtaining a new communications system at the top of his priority list.

The county's current system is outdated, fails to cover the entire county and is prone to break downs in emergency situations. The radio tower it uses is in such bad shape, there is fear it may collapse.

The problem of taking care of the narrow band issue, which other administrations have ignored, is money, expecially in a county where finances are always tight.

The county was facing a project expected to cost at least $300,000, with no money in the budget for it.

"We've looked all over and there just aren't many grants out there to help with the upgrade to narrow band," Beebe told The News. "Some grants are available to help purchase radios, but it has been hard to find money to replace the tower."

It appeared last August, a "miracle solution" had been found, when a private company offered a used 180 foot cellular tower and a portable equipment building for just $165,000. After meeting with Governor Mike Beebe, it appeared a Rural Services grant would help pay for the project, and Quorum Court approved a $68,000 appropriation.

But the deal fell through when it became clear the Rural Services grant would be smaller than hoped.

"They're (Rural Services) supposed to have a meeting in the middle of this month," Judge Sherrell told Quorum Court members on Jan. 3. "We'll find out how much money we're going to get. We pretty much know we're not getting 100% of what they promised us."

Sherrell added there is still a possibility a cellular phone company could partner to build a tower they could both use.

Some counties and agencies are hoping that special federal Homeland Security Grants are going to become available to help with narrow band funding. State emergency management officials say that might be a long shot, however, since Congress has yet to approve such funding.

A last resort in Izard County may be a temporary fix.

"We have a 100 foot portable tower that we can use temporarily, if we had to," said Beebe.

The good news is, it appears most Izard County fire departments and law enforcement agencies have upgraded to narrow band radios. That will allow a narrow band system to be implemented by simply reprogramming the radios to go through a narrow band tower and repeaters, which relay signals all over the county.

"One way or another, we hope to have things in place for the narrow band switch by October," Beebe optimistically claimed.

The narrow band news in Fulton County is much better.

"We updated our tower last year and purchased new repeaters," Fulton County OEM Director Darrell Zimmer told The News. "Volunteer fire departments have been replacing their radios."

"I talked to Darrell last week and told him we are ready to order new radios," said Sheriff Buck Foley.

The Sheriff's Department landed two grants late last year, one for $15,000 and one for $18,000, which will allow it to upgrade its radios.

The Sheriff's Department already uses narrow band radios through AWIN, the Arkansas Wireless Information Network, which provides towers for law enforcement and is run by the state, in addition to using the county communication system.

According to Zimmer, he has applied for required FCC licenses and, once the red tape is out of the way, he can have radios reprogrammed and a full narrow band system up and running by fall.

"Fulton County is in good shape compared to some other counties," Zimmer said. "We should be in compliance by the middle of the year. We should beat the deadline."

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