Public Safety Communications – Common Sense/Common Good vs. NIMBY
By Sheriff Jim Alderden
One of the challenges that I inherited when I took office nine years ago was an inadequate and failing radio communications system in Larimer County. The system had at one time been administered by the Sheriff’s Office but had recently been transferred to the county’s Information Management Systems (IMS), now the Facilities and Information Technology Department (FITD) under the Commissioners, relegating the Sheriff’s Office to just being an end user. The antiquated VHF radio system uses repeater towers throughout the county. These towers allow the limited range handheld and car radios to reach a tower which rebroadcasts the signal at a much higher power so that others, more than a few miles away, can hear. The planning for these towers was not done using any real scientific data. The tower on Deadman Mountain west of Red Feather Lakes is a good example. We needed a radio tower, the Forest Service had a fire lookout tower on Deadman Mountain and someone thought you could probably mount an antenna on that site. They thought since you can see a long ways in all directions, it must be a good site.
At the time this system was built, it was a significant improvement. Dispatchers did not have to wait for a deputy to place a land line phone call to check in. They could place a radio call and if a deputy was in range, they could provide him information immediately. The idea of having radio-equipped cars seemed pretty high tech.
Back then, there were no cellular phones, no satellite telephones (Sputnik was new then), no pagers, and no GPS units. When I moved to Glacier View Meadows in 1979, it took years of fighting to get a telephone, and it was on a party line. We got only two TV stations from our antennae mounted on the roof, and I recall climbing onto the roof every Sunday afternoon in the fall to rotate the antennae in order to get the Bronco’s game.
Fast forward. People travel to the backcountry not with a map and compass, but with a handheld GPS system that can tell them within a few feet where they are at any given time. Many cars have satellite-based communications systems hooked to computers that automatically send help to their location if they are in an accident. Hikers carry cellular phones so that when they reach the top of Longs Peak, they can take a picture and send it to friends back home along with a text message. Dispatchers have talked lost hikers out of the woods using the GPS coordinates they receive off their phones.
Things have changed a lot, including the expectations of the community. If you have an emergency, you expect to dial 911 and that the 911 operator will be able to get in touch with a deputy, the fire department, an ambulance, search and rescue or dive rescue personnel. Unfortunately, that has never been the case in many of our mountainous areas, and what coverage we do have is rapidly deteriorating. Why? To a large degree, it’s due to all those fancy electronic gadgets that you and I have in our homes and our cars and carry on our belts. Each one of those devices fills the air with electronic "noise." All of this combined noise has made it more and more difficult for the public safety radios to effectively communicate.
The FCC has imposed a deadline for all VHF users to be off the VHF broad band frequencies by 2013. Five years may seem like a long time – but remember, this is government, where the wheels of progress turn e x c e e d i n g l y s l o w. Last year, after much wrangling (a technical Sheriff term), the Board of County Commissioners agreed to migrate from the outdated VHF radio system to the new standard, known as the 800 megahertz digital trunked radio system. Over the last decade this system has proven itself to be reliable around the state. Following such tragedies as the Columbine shootings, the public safety leaders in this state identified that many agencies had failing and incompatible radios systems. “Interoperability” became a government mantra. The 800 megahertz system acts somewhat like a traditional radio system and somewhat like a cellular telephone system. It allows users to build and share radio sites and allows users around the state to speak to each other at the flip of a switch. I was one of the original signatories when the statewide system was first proposed, but we are one of the last to actually come on board. It's a win for public safety providers and it's a win for the public because it almost eliminates the costly redundancy between different agencies systems.
While the Commissioners agreed to begin this migration to the new system last year, there are still some significant hurdles to overcome. Most notably, a new radio site to cover the upper Poudre Canyon and some other surrounding areas is an integral component. As you can probably tell, I am not a radio or technology geek. Instead, I rely on talented people on my staff and with the county's radio communications office to find solutions. On this project, they sought out experts in the field of public safety communications and contracted with them to find us answers on how to solve the communications problems that we identified.
These experts recommended one site that would provide us the best possible radio coverage. Unfortunately, that site is on a mountain in a federally designated roadless area. Our application for that site has already been rejected once by the Feds. However, a few people suggest throwing good money after bad: challenging the Feds, resubmitting the application, and spending over four hundred thousand dollars on more environmental studies, pushing the project back two years – and achieving the same result. It makes one wonder if the persons advocating this are really just trying to kill the project rather than solve a problem. Given that, the best bet was to look at the secondary site that was recommended. The county has been jumping through hoops to get the Forest Service to consider allowing us to place a public safety radio tower on that site, Middle Bald Mountain. Unfortunately, a handful of environmental extremists and those suffering from the NIMBY syndrome have been trying to block this proposal. One not so compelling argument against the site from one lady who was objecting was that she had conceived her children up there and she wanted to preserve it for her children and grandchildren. Others initially insisted that communications in the area was adequate- the public safety professionals demonstrated differently. Next, they spread the story that this technology doesn't work- it currently works around the state. After that, they proclaimed they didn't expect public safety services in their area- but they don't have the right to decide for their neighbors. Now that they have run out of arguments, they have moved to their next tool- they threatened to sue to stop the process. So far, this process has taken several years and cost a few hundred thousand dollars. You, yes you, paid over $20,000 for people to crawl across a mountain looking for flowers and grasses that don't exist up there. Thank goodness no Preble's jumping mice were found either.
Is there another option? Not really – at least, not a good one. While the Forest Service originally said we needed to vacate the Deadman site at some point in the near future, they have backed off on that somewhat. One remaining choice is to simply do nothing. In a few years when we are required to stop using the current VHF system, deputies and state troopers simply won’t have any radio communications in the Red Feather Lakes area or the Poudre Canyon. Nor will the local volunteer fire departments, Larimer Search and Rescue, or ambulance services. The other option is to change the Deadman site from VHF to 800 megahertz. However, the Deadman site is powered by a solar system which can’t support the 800 megahertz system. The VHF system only powers up when a signal hits it. The new system is always on, searching for a signal. The solar array would have to be humongous (another technical term) and several tons of batteries replaced periodically. Power lines would have to be brought in about 15 miles, at a cost between $70,000 a mile and over $200,000 a mile, depending on whether it is overhead or buried. Bringing power to this site would be about the same cost as going to the Middle Bald site, but the coverage would still be inadequate. If we are looking at spending millions of dollars, shouldn’t we insist the system be an improvement over the current one?
With all this said, with all the time devoted to this, with all the money spent - enough is enough. This whole process is becoming bogged down in the kind of bureaucracy that makes the average person detest big government and special interest groups. Is the solution perfect? No, but it is a reasonable compromise. Will the solution enhance the level of service and safety for citizens, tourists and emergency responders? Definitely. Is the enhanced level of safety a good trade off for the minor environmental impact and a barely visible tower in the middle of nowhere? For the silent majority – probably. For environmental extremists – no way.
In the interest of good government, I ask you for your support in our efforts to complete a public safety radio system that will meet the needs of the Red Feather lakes and Poudre Canyon communities and the public safety professionals who serve them today and in the future.