By Olivia Hampton

Rockbridge area officials have been talking about upgrading an antiquated emergency radio system for years. But several problems are still interfering with the project’s completion.

Administrators are planning to convert the current analog radio system used by the police departments, fire and rescue squads and emergency medical services to a more efficient digital system.

The analog system that is now in place requires emergency responders to change from one radio frequency to another manually when one frequency gets fuzzy and loses signal. The new digital system would automatically switch to a different frequency when one loses signal, allowing emergency responders to spend less time searching for a frequency and more time focusing on the emergency.

Lexington Emergency Management Coordinator and Fire Marshal Lt. Trent Roberts said the digital system is not only clearer, but also provides GPS tracking in case of an emergency.

Rockbridge County Administrator Spencer Suter said the emergency responders need the upgrade.

“We’re at a point now where we can continue Band-Aiding an old system that has been [cobbled] together or we can go ahead and get the best bang for our buck locally,” Suter said.

This project has three major components. There are the radio towers themselves; the radios used in police cars, ambulances, fire trucks and other emergency vehicles’ and maintenance costs. The total cost is expected to be about $7.9 million.

“The proposed radio system upgrade is vital to the progression of the area communications and emergency services systems,” Roberts said.

Rockbridge County, Lexington, and Buena Vista have been pursuing these upgrades for about two years, but there is still a long way to go, Lexington City Manager Jon Ellestad said.

Lexington City Council held a special work session earlier this month to discuss the ongoing emergency communication project. Photo by Olivia Hampton.

A memo from Suter lists the main obstacles facing the project at this point.

One of the biggest is geography. Because of the surrounding mountains, there do not appear to be enough places that are suitable for new radio towers to be installed.

According to Rockbridge Board of Supervisors meeting minutes from November, only 30 percent of Rockbridge County has portable hand-held and car radio coverage. The new system would provide 71 percent portable radio coverage and about 95 percent mobile coverage, equivalent to cell phone coverage, Suter said.

“If we wanted to get 99 percent coverage in this county, you’d probably have to get 25 tower sites. That’s fiscally unfeasible,” Suter said.

The total estimated cost of the system for all three localities comes in two parts: the infrastructure, including radio towers, and the radio units themselves. The estimated cost of the infrastructure is about $5.2 million, which includes a 10 percent contingency for unexpected construction costs. The estimated cost of the radio units is about $2.7 million.

“Nobody’s thrilled with the cost. It’s a lot of money,” Ellestad said.

The division of cost among the three localities is based on a penny on the tax rate. Suter said that as of now, 70 percent of the cost will be paid by Rockbridge County, about 15 percent will be paid by Lexington,  about 10 percent will be paid by Buena Vista, and a small portion will be paid by Virginia Military Institute, which will also be using the system.

Data from Spencer Suter. By Olivia Hampton

In a Lexington City Council work session on March 6, Ellestad explained that the total cost of the project should be lower than the original estimate. Ellestad also said Lexington should be eligible for grants for this project.

The localities are planning to meet with Harris Corp.,  a communications and information technology company which has been working on the project since December, to discuss how to reduce costs and what can be done about the availability of space for the towers.

Suter said Harris has a large establishment in Lynchburg, which has made it a convenient company to work with.

The departments that will be using the system have also expressed concerns. Ellestad said some of the departments are wary about switching to digital radio. The Rockbridge Regional Emergency Communications Board hopes to put their concerns to rest by observing Pittsylvania County, a region southeast of Rockbridge County that installed a similar system three months ago.

The radio system project has already faced major setbacks, and it was supposed to be completed by the end of this month. Suter’s memo said the localities need to consider their position on the project as soon as possible so that the cost can be included in the upcoming budgets for the fiscal year that begins July 1.

Both Ellestad and Suter said they hope the project will be up and running about two years after the contracts are signed. The localities should have contracts with Harris Corp. signed by the end of this month.

Ellestad said that although there are problems facing the project, new radio systems for emergency services are a priority.

Roberts said the improvements are a matter of safety.

“The area needs to upgrade its communications capabilities for the safety of the public and for the safety of emergency responders,” Roberts said.

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