County supervisors approved a $5.9 million public safety radio system upgrade.

The upgrade has been in the works since 2014 when neighboring counties, including Madison, began looking at a regional approach to an upgrade. Since then, most of the counties have installed or are installing a P25, or Project 25, system. Project 25 is a suite of standards of radio communications used by public safety organizations and are a direct replacement for analog radios, but in addition to transfer voice, can transfer data. They also allow for interoperability with other P-25 systems.

To save on cost, Madison has teamed up with Greene County. The two partnered in 2017 on a feasibility study that evaluated three options—each county have their own standalone system; a system shared by the two counties or a regional system with Fluvanna and Louisa. After vetting each of the options, the two counties decided to opt for the shared system. In 2018, a specification document was developed to present to Motorola and in 2019, Motorola returned a 1,366 page proposal. That proposal has since been redefined in design and negotiations.

According to Madison County Director of Emergency Communications Brian Gordon, the design of the system will be that of a two-cell system based on one core located in Greene County. There will be four tower sites located in Madison County and five in Greene, but both counties will work off of all nine. The system is setup in a ring so if one site goes out, the system reroutes back around so there’s no loss of connectivity. Also, sharing the core between the two counties brings each county’s cost down.

The main importance is the system will improve coverage, which is vital in public safety.

“From my experience, the single most important thing is communication,” local citizen and longtime first responder Steve Hoffman said.

Former director of emergency communications Radar Fink agreed.

“The biggest problem in the flood of 1995 and the Old Rag fire were communications,” he said. “We went with a band aid so we could talk some, but this definitely needed.”

According to Gordon, from Nov. 1 Dec. 1, there were 27 calls for service when radio communications posed a safety issue to responders and the public. This doesn’t account for responders having to try multiple times to access the system. It’s only confirmed instances by the dispatcher. Gordon said the locations of the calls ranged from town, the 29 corridor and the extremities of the county.

“It’s pretty much across the board,” he said. “The system didn’t work the way it needed to.”

Currently, local public safety workers are utilizing 60 percent coverage and Gordon said that 60 percent is in all the wrong places. Also, the current system is proprietary and neighboring counties can’t communicate within in. The system also relies on one point of transmission, Blakey Ridge, whereas the new system will rely on all tower sites.

The new system will create 95 percent coverage with in-vehicle units extending beyond the county’s borders, as well as 95 percent in-street coverage using handheld units. In-building coverage using 6DB units which would be kept in the building would also be 95 percent.

Overall, the contract price for Madison County is approximately $5.7 million with an additional $200,000 in project management and approximately $1.5 million in contingency. The latter includes $700,000 for bidirectional amplifiers should the system signal not penetrate into the schools 100 percent. That number could change depending on the level of penetration, but Gordon said that won’t be known until its being tested. Also included is the replacement of three existing bidirectional amplifiers at $25,000 each.

“One hundred percent school penetration is important,” Gordon said.

“Hopefully you never need it, but you have it in case,” Finks added.

The system also includes maintenance with 24-7 network monitoring, technical support, dispatch service, two-hour onsite support, preventative maintenance and infrastructure repair. It’s also upgraded every four years, keeping it up-to-date with hardware, software and security refreshes.

“The average life is 15 years, but at 15 years you’ll still have a brand new system,” Motorola Solutions, Inc. Senior Account Manager Jeremy Thomas said.

Gordon said there’s a chance that some costs could be offset by partnerships with tower construction companies. He said he’s currently speaking with two different companies to discuss options and possibilities.

“That could potentially save a lot of money,” he said.

He also plans to apply for available federal and state grants.

“The proposed system is a tremendous upgrade from what we are currently using,” he said. “We have made every effort to be financially responsible with the system. Going in with Greene County is a big help with that.”

Gordon said the county specified a Motorola system similar to the current project in 2008. That system’s cost was approximately $3.5 million, a little more than half of the current proposed cost.

“We’ve seen what waiting does,” board of supervisors chairman Clay Jackson said. “It compounds the problem and the cost increases. One of [former supervisor] Bill Campbell’s core functions of government was public safety. Being with Greene is a good thing.”

The construction cost is set to be paid over 24 months with 25 percent due upon the signing of the contract; 40 percent due upon shipment of equipment from staging; 15 percent due upon installation; and 20 percent due upon final acceptance. To pay the first 25 percent, approximately $1.2 million, supervisors approved a resolution appropriating funds from the general fund to the capital projects fund. Some funds were already set aside in the capital projects fund for the radio system project. Supervisors also approved a resolution allowing the use of any future bonds to “pay back” the approximately $1.2 million initial payment.

According to county administrator Jack Hobbs, it will be approximately 3 years until the flip is switched on the radio system. He said these approvals are only the first of many to come.

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