Decatur, IL wins grants for portable radios

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Jun 30, 2003
DECATUR - Decatur is receiving a $2.35 million grant that will fund the purchase of up to 1,000 portable digital radios for emergency services personnel throughout Macon County.

The funds are from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security but disbursed by the state. The goal is to create a statewide communication system under which emergency responders can talk with one another in times of crisis.

"We asked for $6 million but knew we wouldn't get that much," said Decatur Deputy Police Chief Ed Smith who wrote the grant proposal. "The city will provide the required local match."

That match will be in the form of upgraded communications consoles in the central dispatch center at the Law Enforcement Building to handle digital communications versus the current analog system. Smith said projected cost of the consoles is $400,000.

The city council has committed to support the communication upgrade and pledged $200,000 so far, Smith said. The grant money won't arrive until March or April and does not have to be spent until 2010 so there is ample time for the city to come up with the remaining funds for the local match, he said.

The new radios will allow emergency services personnel to connect to the StarCom communication system operated by the state police. The state did not have the money to create StarCom so Motorola did so. Any entity that connected to the system would pay the state an annual fee of $55 for each radio it was using on the system.

"I told the state it was not feasible for us to go on StarCom at those rates," Smith said. "Right now there are more than 2,000 radios on our existing system in the county. A lot of those are old radios that were never retired as new ones were purchased."

The state now has come up with a municipal fee structure of $30 for each radio, which made the project possible, Smith said. The state and Motorola maintain StarCom and will update it as needed, he said.

That lifts a burden from local governments who, faced with constantly changing technology, can't keep up with those changes anymore, Smith said.

Still to be decided is how to pay the state fees which are estimated to total $300,000 annually, said Smith, who is a member of the Macon County Emergency Telephone Services Board.

"At the last ETSB meeting it was brought up that this system is all about 911 stuff," Smith said.

Macon County Sheriff Jerry Dawson agreed.

"The communications system is all relative to responding to 911 calls," Dawson said. "The ETSB has a pot of money from collecting a monthly surcharge so why not pay the fees? I'm going to have to come up with $30,000 a year as my office's share otherwise."

That money would have to come from the county's general fund or from a real estate tax increase because all the safety tax money is committed as of this year, Dawson said.

The emergency telephone system board has been collecting a surcharge of 90 cents a month for each telephone land line in the county since March 1997 and more recently a surcharge of 48 cents a month for each cellular phone.

ETSB Executive Director Dan Sanner said the board has more than $2.5 million accumulated from those monthly surcharges. He said that money serves as a reserve to cover future needs which are currently an open question.

There has been discussion that the ETSB might help area fire protection districts that are not under the new grant but no one has brought the board a proposal in that regard, Sanner said.

Smith said the issue likely will be discussed when the board next meets at 6:30 p.m. Jan. 2 on the eighth floor of the Macon County Office Building, 141 S. Main St.

"Our income is steadily declining," Sanner said. "We lost 8,000 land lines over the last year due to the switch to cellular phones. And we only get about half as much revenue from cellular. As our revenue drops, we're looking at that reserve to carry us."

A concern is what will happen to the current central dispatch center if the city police department moves to another location as has been suggested, Sanner said. If the city and county split dispatching duties, the ETSB would have to spend about $500,000 on additional equipment, he said.

A possible future source of income for the board would be voice over Internet telephone usage, Sanner said. Currently that does not generate any revenue but there is expense for providing E-911 service to such systems, he said.

One voice over Internet carrier is voluntarily collecting a surcharge and paying it to the Illinois Commerce Commission for distribution but others are not, Sanner said.

A new 911 system is going to be installed in the dispatch center next month because the current system will no longer be supported by its manufacturer beginning in 2008, Sanner said. That new system will be compatible with digital communication instead of analog, he said.

"And once the Federal Communications Commission decides how it wants to handle voice over Internet and OnStar systems in vehicles, our new system will be compatible with those," Sanner said. "Eventually, we'll be able to get any data that was generated in a vehicle such as how many air bags deployed or how many times a vehicle rolled over. We'll even be able to get text messaging in the dispatch center. That's only a pipedream now."

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