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Friday, May 6, 2016

Fewer landlines mean E911 board must prioritize

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

The Plymouth County E911 Board plans to replace this radio system at the county communications center, in Le Mars, in the 2013-14 fiscal year. The black radio parts are the inner workings of the radio and the monitor (right inset) is where communications dispatchers read the transmitted information.
More than $1 million in improvements are planned to help enhance Plymouth County's future 911 needs.

Each year the county E911 board prioritizes what projects it will do based on its budget.

The E911 board is supported from money collected through a $1 surcharge on landline telephones.

That amount is projected at $183,500 for the 2013-14 budget year, which begins July 1.

Shawn Olson, county 911 coordinator, said those dollars also include a small portion of a 911 surcharge the state of Iowa collects from cellphone users.

"It's not as much as what we've lost over the last few years, but it still helps," Olson said.

For example, the county had received about $250,000 a year in 911 surcharge dollars, but dwindling landlines telephones and other factors have lowered that amount.

The E911 board does not receive any dollars from county or city budgets to help support communications systems.

Olson explained that because of funding challenges, the E911 board decides annually which projects it will do sooner or later.

In the next fiscal year, 2013-14, the board has allocated $150,000 to upgrade radios at the county's communications center.

"Because of the importance of keeping the system going, it gets a higher priority," Olson explained.

The current radio console used by the communications center is no longer made by the vendor, which means parts will be unavailable in the next five years or so, he said.

"The current system is 12-15 years old," Olson said. "Some people say that's not much, but when you are running it 24/7 it's quite a bit of usage on the system."

The E911 board's total 2013-14 budget proposal is $366,540.

In addition to upgrading radios, the board has set aside dollars for equipment maintenance, purchase of a repeater for Kingsley law enforcement and removal of a radio tower from atop the courthouse.

County Supervisor Craig Anderson said it hasn't been decided whether the E911 board or the board of supervisors will pay for removing the tower from courthouse.

Anderson is a member of the E911 board, representing the county supervisors.

He said the E911 board is currently spending dollars twice as fast as revenue is coming in, which is why it can no longer replace mobile and portable radios for public safety agencies.

Last month the board announced it would no longer pay those costs.

"The infrastructure is something that's used by absolutely everybody," Anderson said. "It's available for every resident in the county."

In support of that, he said he thinks it's the responsibility of local communities to chip in.

"I would love to have enough money to keep putting radios in," Anderson said. "It just isn't there."

Through a prioritizing system, the E911 board has plans for several other projects to be completed in the next five to eight years, Olson said.

Including cost estimates, the projects are:

* $175,000 -- to build a tower between Kingsley and Remsen to help with spotty radio communication coverage

"It would be a free-standing tower with all the equipment," Olson said. "We do not have a location at this time."

* $200,000 -- simulcast paging for fire and emergency services; equipment that would allow the communications center to page using all five towers in the county instead of one at a time

"It's basically a benefit of allowing the distribution of information for fire and ambulances faster by going over multiple towers," Olson said.

* $25,000 a piece -- annual repeater replacement; one of 10 every year

Repeaters are devices that receive a radio frequency at a lower wattage and re-broadcast it at a higher wattage and elevation, Olson explained.

"It increases your coverage quite extensively," he said. "To give us coverage for the county, it takes quite a few repeaters."

In addition to those projects, the E911 board is also looking ahead at equipment for Next Generation 911, Olson said.

"It will include cellphone capabilities for 911 services," he said.

The new system may provide the ability for pictures and videos to be taken with cellphones and sent to the communication center, Olson said.

"We would actually have the capability of viewing them," he said."There's been a huge push to be able to text to 911 services."

Olson explained that the state of Iowa is preparing to roll out Next Generation 911 in the near future.

"The state has been working on back end infrastructure to receive information and disburse it to the counties," he said. "Right now two counties in the state of Iowa are doing texting tests with services."

Olson explained that the state is supposed to fund counties' costs to prepare for Next Generation 911.

"We're going to have to do upgrades to our answering equipment to do those types of calls," he said. "I'm sure some of these upgrades, we are going to pay for."

Because projects to better or maintain the county's 911 communications system are costly, the E911 board splits the price between budget years, Olson explained.

"We will actually set the money aside to do a project over the next few years," he said. "We will take part of the money from this year and mark it for next year's projects."

Anderson said prioritizing and setting dollars aside is the only way the E911 board can keep up with its expenses.

"As long as we keep a conscious effort on prioritizing the projects over the time frame and the money coming in, we're still sitting in really pretty good shape," Olson said.

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