Radio system

Before the vote, chief of Lake Monticello Volunteer Rescue Squad Joe Orsolini urged the Board to approve the contract.  Calling the current radio system “dangerous,” Orsolini delivered an impassioned speech in which he told supervisors it is merely a matter of time before a firefighter, EMT, or deputy is killed in an emergency situation because the radio system prevents the first responder from being able to call for backup.  “We need a new radio system,” he said.  “It’s not a negotiable item.  It’s a necessity.”

Only 35 percent of Fluvanna County is covered by the current radio system, said Cheryl Elliott, emergency services coordinator, which means that in 65 percent of the county, emergency responders have spotty or even nonexistent ability to communicate with each other or to ask for backup, especially inside buildings.

“This [radio system] is the lifeblood of our responders in the community,” said Elliott, “of being able to communicate with one another and also back to dispatch.  The lack of radio coverage puts our responders in danger on a daily basis.”

In what Elliott called “momentous progress,” supervisors approved a contract that will outfit Fluvanna with a radio system providing 95 percent coverage throughout the county as measured inside residential buildings, as well as three miles outside the county.

The system, which will have seven towers initially but can handle up to 14, will be what’s known as a “trunking” system.  In a conventional system, such as what Fluvanna has currently, only one person can talk at a time on any given channel.  And since the sheriff’s office functions on one channel and fire and rescue function primarily on another channel, there are often periods of time in which the channels are in use and other personnel must wait for a free moment.

In contrast, a trunking system seamlessly moves communications around onto available frequencies, allowing for many people to talk seemingly simultaneously.  The system will also contain “many layers of redundancy,” or backup, said Elliott, so that if one tower goes down communications can continue.

“We’ve known for 15 years that radio coverage in the county has been a problem,” said Elliott.  To this end, supervisors have stashed away $7.1 million to pay for a new system.  The money to fund the system, therefore, is already in Fluvanna County’s bank account.

Instead of paying for the project up front, however, supervisors have elected to finance the $6.6 million system through a lease-to-purchase agreement lasting seven years, with an interest rate of 2.65 percent and the first two yearly payments deferred.

The reason for this decision, explained County Administrator Steve Nichols, is because this arrangement “gives the county maximum freedom to control how our money is spent.”  Since the agreement has no prepayment penalties, Nichols said the Board may still decide to pay in full in the future.

“However,” Nichols continued, “alternative uses of cash may be financially beneficial, especially in view of the likely increases to long-term interest rates.  For example, the Board may decide to use cash toward the design and construction of the planned Zion Crossroads water and sewer system, rather than more expensive 30-year financing in a year or two when the project is ready for construction and interest rates are expected to be higher.”

Fluvanna is ahead of some of its neighboring counties in planning for a new radio system.  Because of this, nearby counties may be interested in partnering with Fluvanna’s system.  A partnering county would have to build its own towers to give coverage to its own land, but could share the “brains” of the system housed in Fluvanna, said Elliott.  For this benefit, of course, the partnering county would pay a portion of hardware costs.  More importantly, said Elliott, the partnering county would help with ongoing maintenance costs.  Plus, having a county partner would add more beneficial redundancy to the system and allow for sharing of frequencies.

“Approving this contract means that we’re going to start tomorrow,” said Elliott.  After the planning phase the equipment will be manufactured, then staged so that county staff can test the equipment before it’s brought to Fluvanna.  When it’s installed, testers will traipse around the county in half-mile grids, trying the radio system from every location in Fluvanna.  Then the system will go through a trial period before it’s finally accepted.

“One critical need,” said Elliott, “is there is very little to no public safety radio coverage in the new high school, which is very much a concern.  So one of the first things we’ll do is install an in-building solution to get public safety radio coverage into the new building, probably in November.”

The new radio system should be up and running in 18 months.

So many fire and rescue personnel in one place, with all their trucks lining the streets around the courthouse, made a few people joke about who was manning the stations in case of emergency.  So when the applause subsided after supervisors approved the new radio system and the volunteers rose en masse to leave, Supervisor Mike Sheridan joked, “We’re safe again.”

Orsolini pointed at supervisors and replied, “In 18 months we’ll be a lot safer.”


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