Isle of Wight 911 radio system is lacking, study finds

Published 2:40 pm Wednesday, February 17, 2016

By Diana McFarland

News editor

A study released Friday suggests that Isle of Wight County purchase a new E911 radio system and charge the towns of Smithfield and Windsor a user fee to be part of the system.

The report, completed by Engineering Associates LLC of Alpharetta, Ga., also advised the Isle of Wight Board of Supervisors to reevaluate its Emergency Communications Center, which is jointly used by the county, Smithfield and Windsor.

The report was presented Friday to the Board’s public safety committee.

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Isle of Wight operates and maintains the countywide towers and repeater sites, except in Smithfield, which also has its own tower and repeater site. The county’s seven fire and rescue stations, the Sheriff’s Office and the Smithfield and Windsor police departments each buy and maintain its own radio equipment. All of the radios work off the county towers, except for the Smithfield Police Department. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

“Hodgepodge is a good word for it,” said Isle of Wight County Sheriff Mark Marshall Monday in a phone interview.

Isle of Wight County is also running up against a deadline with the Federal Communications Commission concerning a series of licenses it obtained nearly a year ago, but are set to expire in March.

The FCC needs to know that the county is making concrete efforts to move forward with the project, estimated to cost about $11 million, or Isle of Wight is in danger of losing the hard-to-obtain licenses it needs for a new system, Marshall said.

Isle of Wight is applying for an extension on those licenses, which would allow the county to upgrade to an 800 MHz system — the level being used by other localities in the Hampton Roads region except Surry County.

Isle of Wight currently uses VHF, which was narrow-banded several years ago by the FCC. At the same time, portions of the 800 bandwidth was specifically set aside for public safety, Marshall said. 

Meanwhile, law enforcement, fire and rescue volunteers and personnel are working with an outdated system that often fails to work in certain parts of Isle of Wight County — particularly the Rushmere area. Isle of Wight’s system is also incompatible with neighboring localities, leading to communication problems, Marshall said.

Beyond the initial $11 million to install the system, the report estimated it would cost about $450,000 – $650,000 a year in operational costs. The cost estimate includes new towers, as the existing towers are not adequate, according to D. Terry Hall, director of the York-Poquoson-Williamsburg Regional 911 Emergency Communications Center. 

If the county invests in new towers, it can lease space and could also make them part of a countywide broadband initiative, as well as bring in additional revenue, Hall said.  

Other options include forming a partnership with a neighboring locality to cut down on costs.

In addition to poor transmission quality and lack of compatibility with neighboring localities, Isle of Wight’s system is a composed of different brands of equipment serviced by multiple vendors.

Marshall initially presented the need for a new radio system to the Board last year, and was given the green light to obtain the necessary FCC licenses, which he did at a cost of $10,000.

If lost, it would cost the county $30,000 – $35,000 to reapply for those licenses and no guarantee of obtaining them again, Hall said.

So far, a plan B has not been devised in the event the county loses the licenses and fails to regain them, Hall said.

The issue is up for discussion at Thursday’s Board of Supervisors meeting, which begins at 6 p.m.  {/mprestriction}