As Franklin County 911 personnel work to complete the last component of a system overhaul purchased several years ago, a new issue has arisen.
County officials will have to decide whether or not to join a statewide network known as MOSWIN, the Missouri Statewide Interoperability Network.
The issue with Franklin County joining the state system is that the county currently is part of a federal Urban Areas Security Initative district.
Those districts plan their own emergency communications initiatives. In the St. Louis area, STARRS, the St. Louis Area Regional Response System, is tasked with planning for the UASI district.
The district has been investing in microwave communications, but Franklin County officials previously have said the county can’t afford to take part with that plan, which has a price tag in the hundreds of millions.
Bryan Courtney with the Missouri Department of Public Safety told members of the county’s emergency communications management board last week the county could join the state’s system, and apply for grant funding, if it were to opt out of the UASI district.
Doing so could create issues, said Abe Cook, Franklin County’s emergency management agency director.
Interim 911 Director Vince Zagarri said the county has been on the fence about staying involved in the UASI district in large part because of the cost.
Courtney said the state isn’t allowed to give funding to entities in UASI districts, but can influence those districts on how they allocate their own money.
“The message from the state is that where there are known silos of inoperability, it needs to be fixed,” he said.
Taking part in MOSWIN would likely be the cheaper option.
Steve Devine with MOSWIN said the system requires no cost from local agencies — they simply need to have radios that will work on the system.
The county is inching closer to taking a new computer-aided dispatching system online and has already switched its emergency communications network over to be narrowband compliant months ahead of the 2013 federal deadline.
Devine said the state began the initiative to create a network across the state for state agencies — the Missouri Highway Patrol, Department of Natural Resources and state emergency management agency, among others.
The network operates off VHF, or very high frequency, bands.
Some counties and emergency agencies have received extra help from the state in getting onto the MOSWIN system because those “Tier 1” entities donated usable frequencies to the state.
Devine said the system was built to promote interoperability.
Neighboring Gasconade County is a Tier 1 partner of MOSWIN.
“With many statewide systems, you’re either in or you’re out. We’re working with people who want to have gradient levels of access to our system,” he said.
The network is set to be operational by the beginning of 2013.
The state is offering the system to local agencies because it wants an interoperable platform to communicate with those agencies, Devine said.
“The state’s skin in the game is that we know we’re going to have areas like Franklin County that will want to buy and build a tower and have the state tie it into the (MOSWIN) system,” he said.
“As we get those kinds of requests, we’re going to work with those entities on a case-by-case basis,” Devine said.
Zagarri said the county is working on the 2013 budget for 911 now. That budget predicts a continued 20 percent decline in revenue.
The county’s only revenue source for 911 operations is through a landline telephone tax.
That tax rate is capped at 15 percent by state law, but the number of people with landline telephones continues to decline.
Missouri is the only state in the country without a 911 tax on cellphones.
Zagarri said 911 services are improving by cutting costs from redundant or unneeded services.
“By being creative and looking at our issues, we’re staying ahead,” he said.
The estimated 2013 revenue from the tax is $640,000.
MOSWIN contains 72 radio tower sites, each with a 50-watt radio and 2-meter-long antenna.
The sites are equipped with five radio repeater pairs. Those pairings are aggregated together.
Those sites are routed through two master site controllers.
Devine said those controllers act as brains for the system.
The system, using modern technology, can automatically create talk groups for those trying to communicate. In the past, if the system had five repeater pairs that would limit conversations to five people at a time.
With talk groups, Devine said, the state’s trunk system can support up to 500 users on each of its 72 towers at a time.
State public safety personnel will be able to analyze data from each tower and figure out if the 500-user capacity is adequate, Devine said.
None of those tower sites are located in Franklin County, he said, but state personnel will have coverage in the county from towers in the surrounding area.
The state also has put 207 radios in communications centers around the state to provide a way for agencies to talk to state officers and vice versa.
Not a Replacement
“(MOSWIN) isn’t replacing or in lieu of existing systems, it is in addition to,” Devine said.
The state system is being built out to provide coverage for mobile radios, those found in police cars and fire trucks, in 95 percent of the state.
That quality threshold of 2 percent bit error quality degradation exceeds the minimum signal quality needed for the mobile radios to function, Devine said.
The radios approved for the network function with quality degradation of up to 5 percent, he said.
Those radios are known as Project 25 radios. They are available from roughly 12-13 manufacturers.
Quality levels are tested in half-mile grids. Testing is done by scientifically measuring signal strength via computer as well as with mobile radios in 32 state-owned vehicles.
Devine said state agencies, and those agencies providing aid to metropolitan areas, will be equipped with dual band radios that can function on the VHF network as well as the 700/800 MHz networks in some metropolitan areas.
Smaller Agencies, Smaller Budgets
Jeff Buchheit with the New Haven/Berger Fire Department said dual band radios would be expensive for small departments like his.
Courtney and Devine said for smaller agencies, a larger entity like Franklin County could maintain a cache of radios for those agencies without dual band radios of their own.
“For Missouri to build a 700/800 MHz system, it would have taken at least 300 tower sites,” Devine said. “A lot would have required the pouring of fresh concrete.”
Pouring concrete, in other words building new towers themselves, would cost about $1 million each, he estimated.
The RF system the state is completing instead required only three new tower sites, all built at Highway Patrol troop headquarters.
“Everything else was an existing tower site,” Devine said.
The state also has secured frequencies that can be used by emergency agencies throughout Missouri.