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Halifax County faces $3 million cost for radio upgrade / December 27, 2018
Halifax County is looking at a $3 million cost to switch its E911 radio system from VHF analog to digital, an upgrade aimed at helping emergency services personnel avoid communication dead zones while working calls around the county.

“The bad thing is for you to have a rescue worker or police in a ravine and they’re trying to help someone who’s hurt or are being shot at, and their radio isn’t working,” said interim County Administrator Dan Sleeper, who spoke about the issue at the Dec. 20 annual planning session of the Halifax County Board of Supervisors.

A digital microwave radio system would give Halifax County a technology platform that would last for years, compared to the current analog system — based on a telephone trunk line — that is prone to breakdowns and is expensive to maintain, with spare parts for the system becoming increasingly hard to find.

“It’s unfortunate that we’re at a point where we don’t have much of a decision to make because [we’ve] got to do something,” said ED-1 supervisor J.T. Davis.

Halifax County spends $8,300 a month on its CenturyLink bill alone, in return for which the county receives “absolutely obscene” service from the phone company, Davis added.

Halifax County EMS personnel must make the repairs to the system when it goes down because there’s no service provider in place to do so, and vendors are not making replacement gear for the analog radio receivers and transmitters. Sleeper described how members of the E911 call center periodically are called out at all hours of the night to get the trunk line back in working order because “the phone company will not fix it any more.”

Halifax County is applying for new frequencies in the 700 megahertz emergency services band as it prepares to install the new radio system, with work expected to begin in 2019.

With the change, E911 communications will go from being relayed on eight analog radio towers around the county to only five towers equipped with microwave radio repeaters. Building this new system backbone is expected to cost around $360,000, Sleeper said.

“It takes about three years to pay it off, if you use the amount” — the $8,300 per month trunk line phone bill — “we’re paying now,” he said.

The larger expense is purchasing portable radios that would be used by members of the county’s fire, rescue and police departments, bringing the cost of the new system to around $3 million. In exchange, however, emergency personnel would gain a platform that would allow departments to communicate with each other on the high-frequency 700mhz band, without the equipment breakdowns and dead spots that plague the existing system. Communications also would be encrypted, allowing police to operate without anyone listening in on their radio chatter.

Halifax also has the advantage of being able to “piggyback” on Mecklenburg County’s new digital radio system. The state’s public procurement act allows jurisdictions to piggyback on the E911 radio upgrades of another county or city, as long as the system provider’s contact allows it. Mecklenburg, which uses a Motorola system, has such a clause in its contract.

One concern with radio systems, digital or analog, is the ability to receive communications inside buildings. Scott Simpson, the incoming county administrator who begins work Feb. 1, said that in his experience as Smyth County assistant administrator, some adjustments will be required before digital radio achieves the promise of seamless communication among EMS departments. However, Simpson added, Smyth has been well-served by its system, which it installed about a decade ago.

While Halifax is likely to have to spend $3 million, that’s a far cry from the experience of Pittsylvania County, which had to invest $17 million to upgrade its 21 volunteer fire departments and 14 rescue units to digital radio, said Sleeper, who previously worked as Pittsylvania County administrator.

“We will have close to the same coverage at the $3 million range,” he said.

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