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May 29, 2013

County plans for new 911 center, radio system

NEW CASTLE — Plans afoot for a new Lawrence County 911 center and improved emergency radio communications could cost $17 million.

The commissioners said the enhancements are needed and they would consider a bond issue to pay for them.

Brian Melcer, the county public safety director, detailed the proposed improvements at Tuesday’s commissioners meeting.

In February, the county commissioned Mission Critical Partners, a consulting firm in State College and Wexford, to conduct a needs assessment for the county’s emergency radio communication system to determine the best way to meet the needs of first responders.

In a letter to the county, the company wrote it had identified “serious gaps within the existing communications system, including severely limited coverage and poor system reliability.”

The firm met with police, fire and ambulance services about their needs, Melcer said, and it is recommending a P25 VHF same-band digital trunking system.

The cost is about $10 million, Melcer said. It will require replacing existing portable and mobile radios and require construction of new towers and network.

The other project — to construct a building or renovate an existing one to house the 911 dispatch and emergency operations center — is expected to cost another $5 million to $7 million.

Melcer said those plans are preliminary and a location has not been determined. The existing center is housed in leased space in the Cathedral and costs the county $3,160 per month in rent.

“I think it’s imperative to make this type of investment,” Commissioner Dan Vogler said, “and I expect it will more than likely require the issuance of a bond.”

James Gagliano, county administrator, said Lawrence County’s debt service is low and it is in “pretty good financial shape. If we have to seek a bond issue, our ratings should be superior.”

Melcer noted certain project costs can be paid from money that is now is going to rent for the Cathedral and the towers.

The county pays $492, $951 and $1,030 in monthly rent for three towers in New Castle in Ellwood City.

“We’re looking at a 20- to 30-year investment,” he added.

Vogler acknowledged there are areas — particularly in Ellwood City — where because of topography there is poor radio coverage, “and we need to address that. This is a necessary step and shame on us if we don’t do it.”

A lot of the costs for the radio system would be covered by 911 fees and wireless 911 fees, Melcer said. He anticipates that project could take two years to complete. Meanwhile, every tower site must have local approvals for zoning and other requirements.

Melcer noted several surrounding counties already have upgraded their 911 centers and radio systems and Lawrence County is among the last to address it.

“We’ve never had a significant improvement in public safety for the county,” he said. “We’ve always done with what we have.”

(Email: dwachter@ncnewsonline.com)

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