A long-term process to replace the Columbia 9-1-1 Communication District’s 20-year old aging radio system is slowly proceeding.
The system utilizes 12 land towers anchored in various points across Columbia County and two towers in Washington state. But over the years, the ability of the system to effectively support emergency communications between law enforcement, fire and ambulance first responders continues to deteriorate.
“We have the ability to dispatch, but once they get on the road they can encounter poor or no radio coverage,” Columbia 9-1-1 Communication District Executive Director Mike Fletcher said. “The equipment is failing and needs to be replaced. The parts that are failing aren’t made anymore, so we literally have to find replacement parts online to keep it going.”
The failing system impacts the ability of first responders to reach people requesting 911 services, according to Fletcher.
“All of this communication system is what police, fire and medics rely on,” Fletcher said. “Our goal is to replace it with new and modern equipment and improve radio coverage.”
“Most people think of the system as those big towers spread across the county with transmitters beneath them and antennas on the towers,” Fletcher said.
The system’s portable and mobile radios are also being replaced.
“The portables are what you see on the hips of police officers and on the outside of firefighters’ uniforms. The mobiles are radios inside the first responders’ vehicles,” he said.
The system’s microwave antennas, large round dishes attached to the towers, are currently being replaced in a phased in process.
“The microwave antennas support the push-to-talk radios, the portables and mobiles, they tie all of the towers together by simulcasting the voice and video,” Fletcher said.
The District published a Request for Information (RFI) in 2018 seeking responses from communication vendors. Three vendors responded with options to replace the existing towers and radio systems. In 2019, the District conducted public meetings in St. Helens and one-on-one needs assessments with all stakeholders of the system.
The District then contracted last spring with Federal Engineering, an independent firm, to conduct an assessment of the communication system.
“They looked at what we have today, where our equipment is, the history of the existing radio system, and the proposals from vendors who offered replacement options,” Fletcher said.
Federal Engineering presented their report and recommendations to the District board in September. The 9-1-1 District Board, and the Columbia County 9-1-1 Advisory Committee, comprised of all the police, fire and EMS providers, reviewed the report and recommendations.
Fletcher estimates replacing the communication system could cost anywhere from $9 million to $25 million.
“We know the entire replacement of the radio system is going to be in the millions of dollars, so we began a replacement project a couple of years ago for the microwave portion of the system,” Fletcher said. “Incrementally, we have been upgrading the microwave network.”
Fletcher said the incremental upgrade will be cost effective.
“Every dollar that we spend today on those microwave systems is a dollar that we don’t have to ask the voters for when we go out for a bond (to cover the cost of the entire system replacement),” Fletcher said. “The upgrade replacements will work with any new radio system that the board approves.”
The District is working with Federal Engineering as its consultant for the replacement process. The District has scheduled its next regular monthly board meeting for 9 a.m. Dec. 9 to review a $15,000 contract extension with Federal Engineering to fund a workshop in early 2022 to review questions from stakeholders about the system replacement needs.
“Hopefully, the board will make a decision on which solution to pursue,” Fletcher said. “Federal Engineering will likely be asked by the board to conduct the design of the new system and negotiate contractors with the needed vendors.”
Fletcher said much work must be done before the District goes to voters with a general obligation bond to fund the system replacement.