PI officials tackling radio issues

ROGERS CITY – Presque Isle County’s central dispatch radio coverage is shaky in a few places. It’s an issue county officials hope to tackle, if they can find the funding.

County E911 coordinator Renee Szymanski said coverage in Bearinger and Ocqueoc townships isn’t great, and there are problems in Presque Isle Township as well. Both potentially could be fixed by adding repeater towers, like those in Onaway and Posen. Otherwise, the county is served by a single tower near the intersection of M-68 and Ward Branch Road.

Part of the problem is a recent mandate from the Federal Communications Commission, requiring users of VHF and UHF radio systems to use a narrower slice of radio bandwidth. In complying with the mandate, the county lost coverage in some areas.

While there are problem areas, dispatchers find ways to work around the issues, Szymanski said.

“Frankly, we’re pretty used to it,” she said. “We have cell phones, and cell phone coverage has gotten extremely better in the past year. We’re pretty good at trying to decipher who’s who when they’re calling on scene.”

Another workaround involves using new, portable 800-megahertz radios, Szymanski said. They use towers that are part of a statewide system, the same one used by Michigan State Police. There are several towers within the county providing almost total coverage, and sheriff’s deputies can switch to these radios in places with spotty coverage.

Sheriff Robert Paschke agreed the portables work much better. It would be possible for law enforcement to switch over to the 800-megahertz system entirely, but fire departments and first responders still would depend on the older, “high-band” system for paging, meaning the county likely would have to keep and maintain its current setup.

The department has around 12 of these portable radios, and Emergency Services Coordinator Norm Smith is applying for grants to buy some mobile radios that work on the same statewide system. These cost around $2,200 to $2,500 apiece, and he’ll apply for Homeland Security funding to buy eight.

“Since Homeland Security funding has really diminished over the last several years, I’ll be lucky if I have two or three,” he said.

Switching the sheriff’s department over to the 800-megahertz system entirely would be costly, Commissioner Mike Darga said. He chairs the county’s health and public safety committee, and in 2013 he and other commissioners heard a proposal from Tele-Rad to purchase enough new radios for the entire department, plus the Rogers City Police Department. It’d cost upwards of $90,000 to do so, plus system user fees.

“Right now the county can’t afford $90,000 to alleviate the problem,” he said.

Darga is hoping some of the issues Tele-Rad recently fixed will help, he said. Either way, the coverage gaps need to be addressed sooner or later.

“If something would ever happen when (law enforcers) get caught in one of those spots and they need emergency help, they’d have trouble getting through,” he said. “It is something we’ve got to think about fixing in the next couple of years.”

Paschke also said the coverage issues potentially could affect his deputies. However, dispatchers know to use other means, or ask another deputy to head to the location if necessary.

Paschke and Szymanski agreed the coverage issues don’t put public safety at risk.

More repeaters could help, Paschke said, but buying, installing and maintaining them would be costly. Plus, it’s unknown how much they’ll 0 help until they’re operational.

However it gets fixed, Szymanski said she believes it needs to be done. Darga said the county may consider buying 800-megahertz radios if it gets more funding for its 911 system, and Paschke said he’ll be working on ideas and plans to present them when the county is considering its next budget.

Jordan Travis can be reached via email at jtravis@thealpenanews.com or by phone at 358-5688. Follow Jordan on Twitter @jt_alpenanews. Read his blog, A Snowball’s Chance, at www.thealpenanews.com.