LANCASTER, Pa. -- Lancaster County's emergency responders have high hopes for the long-awaited new countywide radio system.
"Honestly, we have no place to go but up," said Michael Fitzgibbons, chief of Susquehanna Valley EMS. "The system now is insufficient for what we need it to do.
"Going to the T-band and the tower placements that we're going to be using around the county, the county is going to be more than sufficiently covered - especially compared to what we have now."
West Hempfield police Chief Mark Pugliese said the proposed system "is what law enforcement and emergency services throughout the country are using today.
"The most important part is there will be channels on one radio so that all emergency services can talk together and communicate with each other, rather than each apparatus having to have three different types of radios."
Fitzgibbons, Pugliese and other police, fire and ambulance department members from across Lancaster County were on hand Wednesday morning at the weekly meeting of the county commissioners to witness the board vote to authorize the contracts to buy a new radio system.
The contracts totaled $26 million - $20 million of which will go to ARINC of Annapolis, Md.
ARINC will be responsible for building by August 2014 the system that will handle all emergency radio communications in Lancaster County.
"From the public service side, it's something we absolutely have to have," said Les Houck, a Salisbury Township supervisor who chaired a countywide committee that's been searching for a new radio system since the late 1990s.
ARINC's system will feature communications via television band, or T-Band, which will replace the late 1950s-era technology of the county's current radio system.
According to Dennis Ward of MWF Enterprises, the county's radio consultant, the new system will alleviate existing problems with:
- Overcrowding. If there are multiple incidents occurring simultaneously in the county, emergency responders often talk over one another.
- Interoperability. Police, fire and ambulance crews cannot currently talk to one another unless they have multiple radios.
- Coverage. There are parts of the county, especially in the River Hills, labeled "dead zones," where current emergency radios don't work.
ARINC will not get its $20 million in a lump sum.
The county will pay the company over the next two years as ARINC achieves certain project goals.
The first significant goal is to set up a mini-version of the countywide system in the city by March 2013.
City and county officials will vigorously test the city version of the system before it is deployed throughout the county.
"Obviously, we don't want to go countywide if we find out it doesn't work the way we want it to," county solicitor Crystal Clark said.
If the system works as expected in the city, it then will be expanded to cover the entire county by August 2014.
And it must pass the county's tests before the system would ultimately be accepted and final payment to ARINC is made, Clark said.
Until the new system is accepted, the county's current radio system will remain in operation.
Eventually, every police, fire and ambulance department across the county would have to buy new radios - if the new system is accepted.
Basic radios, which are made by several manufacturers, cost about $1,000 apiece, with public safety-grade models running from $1,500 to $2,000.
Scott Martin, chairman of the county commissioners, said the county plans to run training programs on using the new system for all emergency responders as the time draws near for the system to go live.
"This has been a long journey, filled with disappointment, but in the end it all worked out," Martin said of the county's search for a new radio system.
"We had a simple mission for the (radio) committee, and that was to develop the best product for our first responders at the best price for our taxpayers. For me, that's a win-win."