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Wednesday
June 19th, 2019

4 11 19 joint meeting part 1Seward County EMS Director John Ralston, center, and Liberal Fire Chief Kelly Kirk listen as Emergency Management Director Greg Standard outlines some much needed equipment for local first responders at a joint meeting with the city and county commissions and the 911 Communications Board last week. L&T photo/Robert PierceROBERT PIERCE • Leader & Times

 

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a series regarding a joint meeting between the Liberal City Commission, Seward County Commission and the local 911 Communications Board and a special meeting between the city commission and the communications board last Thursday and Friday to try to update emergency communications equipment locally.

Today’s story will outline the needs for first responders. Two other stories will talk about discussions between the city and county commission and a final consensus reached between the two boards to jointly pay for a new tower and possibly new dispatch equipment and mobile radios.

Like most technology, the equipment first responders use goes out of date from time to time.

Equipment for first responders in Seward County is rapidly deteriorating, and now after many years of discussion, some progress may be being made to help bring it up to date.

Members of the 911 Communications Board spoke to the Seward County Commission and Liberal City Commission’s last Thursday about the need to bring local emergency technology up to date.

Seward County Emergency Management Director Greg Standard said at the top of that list is a new communications tower.

“We requested to go out to bid on a communications tower that was approved by the city and the county,” he said. 

“We have received a bid back, and we’re now seeking approval of that bid.”

The second piece of equipment needed, Standard said, is a new console system for the dispatch center, but this, he said, is driven by how that system is connected and what it is connected to.

“There’s an option where you buy the one that has all the bells and whistles,” he said. “That’s prohibitively expensive, and we want to buy what we need to get the job done and not extra equipment that wouldn’t be necessary.”

Standard said the current technology used locally works for some of the agencies, but not for others.

“You’ll see that we’re served by two state towers that do a very good job out in the county, but we do not have coverage to the extent that we would like in the city of Liberal,” he said. “In order to make this work, we’re needing to have a tower near Liberal.”

That trend, Standard said, also holds true for the parts of the county.

“We don’t cover the northern part of the county with one tower,” he said. “If we stay in the 400 system or the old radio system that we’ve had for 20 years, then we need two towers. That does not help us.”

Standard said the discussions to try to get new equipment for local emergency workers are not new.

“We’ve worked on this for 10 years to try to bring out the very best proposal that we can bring out that is as inexpensive as we can possibly make it, but still deliver the services that we need to deliver,” he said. “All three of those are tied together, and the dispatcher is becoming a real issue.”

Standard said a new tower would allow coverage from the dispatch center and mobile radios to travel further as well.

“There’s many towers scattered around the state,” he said. “As we have other agencies transporting patients or whatever other mutual aide work that they’re doing, all of these things mean our primary communications radio, and presently, we’re not very far out of the county when we lose that. The City of Liberal, law enforcement officers also have that same issue. If they leave the city limits, within a few miles, they’re likely to lose contact back into the city.”

Standard said an extra tower likewise allows for backup should another tower go down.

“If one of those towers fails, we’re not completely dead in the water,” he said. “We always have another reserve place to go where we’ll continue to transmit.”

Seward County EMS Director John Ralston later talked about some tests he performed with  the current radios and towers.

“Different weather and things that will affect this,” he said. “The direction I was driving affected it. This data on this signal right here shows an excellent footprint of what we’re actually getting, and sharing that information across to another tower where we’re locating it going with the same dimensions, that’s how we come up with that data.”

Ralston said signal strength is naturally stronger the closer to a tower the radio is and weaker the further away it is.

“The placement of that tower is going to be within that three- to four-mile range to cover the whole city,” he said. “It’s going to put the strength of the signal where the density is the highest, which is your best results with this type of a system.”

Seward County Director of Communications Pamela Johnson said dispatch equipment is in serious need of replacement.

“Dispatch consoles is the brains of our infrastructure,” she said. “It needs to be replaced. It’s obsolete. The manufacturer no longer supports our system.”

Part of the package being explored is pending on a choice emergency leaders will make between whether they will go with the seemingly outdated 400 megahertz mobile radios in current use, newer 800 megahertz radios or both. Johnson said the dispatch equipment also depends on this decision.

“We’re not able to move foward with purchasing a new system for our comm center until we know where we’re going as a county with 800, 400, digital, analog, so we need to make a decision, and our comm center needs to be done rather quickly,” she said.

Johnson likewise said prices for dispatch systems are not known because of price packages available for mobile radio units.

“If we get this along with however many mobile, hand-held whatever, that would bring the price down of other things,” she said.

Johnson added the system being looked at for the dispatch center has redundancy.

“There’s eight layers of redundancy, so if one layer fails, we can go from point to point communications, fiber,” she said. 

Johnson said keeping the current dispatch system in place limits what first responders can do communications wise, particularly should a significant emergency occur.

“Right now our communications center, if we were to be wiped off the face of the Earth, we would have to go to a surrounding agency, and we could only speak to one unit on one frequency at a time because there’s not multi-channels that we would be able to use,” she said. “We could only use one channel, so think about talking to one person on a scene of a catastrophic event from an hour away when we would have the ability to go an hour away and talk to all seven agencies sitting here and help the people on the ground take care of the 22,000 people of Seward County.”

Liberal Fire Chief Kelly Kirk has been somewhat reluctant to come on board with the idea of using 800 megahertz radios, but recently, he became a believer.

“My biggest concerns have been the safety of my people operating on fire scenes because the 400 megahertz for us currently functions very well,” he said. “I can’t name a time in 28 years when our system has failed other than a repeater going down and we’ve had to switch to a mutual aide channel.”

Kirk said it is only within the last 18 months he has become comfortable with using 800 megahertz radios.

“I’ve also come to the realization that I was standing pretty firm on the 400,” he said. “I was standing in the way of progress a little bit. I never wanted to do that.”

Kirk said putting a new system in place is what is best for the people of Seward County.

“I believe the citizens of this community have taxed out, and I don’t know how we pay for a $3 million project up front,” he said. “Ideally, what we wanted to do today was to get both commissions to agree and approve to move forward and build the tower. In my mind’s eye, that’s step one.”

Kirk then outlined what the new equipment would cost, starting with the tower.

“There’s $300,000, and it takes some money to move stuff over there,” he said. “We’ll go to the bid process and come back to you with a solid big picture number. We’re talking big project, probably anywhere from a million and a half to $3 million. It’s that wide of range because we can’t give you solid numbers yet because we don’t know the wish and the direction of the two commissions so that we can make up our minds where we want to go. Once we know that, we can dial that number in closer, and it’s going to be a big scary number.”

Kirk estimated the current system has been in operation since about 2002.

“We’ve been operating this system so long with very little maintenance,” he said. “It’s deteriorating, degraded, and technology has progressed. It’s driving where we have to go.”

Kirk said after years of discussions, now is the time for both the city and the county to move forward with getting new equipment.

“We’ve talked this out for 10 years, and we’ve kicked the can as far down the road as it can go,” he said. “It’s time to get ahold of this project and move forward with it and make it work. It’s where technology’s going.”

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