New Radio System Nears Final OK

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Thunderbolt

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City, County May Be Operational By Fall

HARRISONBURG, VA - A long-awaited $18.9 million radio system designed to improve emergency communications could be operational by the end of the summer, according to Jim Junkins, director of the Harrisonburg-Rockingham County Emergency Communications Center.

Junkins said an inspection by the National Radio Astronomy Observatory at Sugar Grove, W.Va., and final approval of the Federal Communications Commission remain to be done.

City and county government officials have said they expect the new system to improve response times and to fill some of the dead zones in the existing radio coverage area.

The 800 MHz digital system will allow city and county emergency officials to coordinate their responses on a single system, as well as in private, Junkins said.

The digital simulcast system has an encryption feature that allows code transmission of messages, said Dave Hutcheson, spokesman for M/A-COM Inc., which designed and installed the system.

Along with emergency personnel, the system puts government workers on the same wavelength so they can be involved in responses, Junkins said.

Informal discussions by city and county leaders on a new radio system began long before terrorists struck the World Trade Center's twin towers and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

But the event showed that responses were slowed when emergency personnel and other government agencies could not communicate because they had different radio systems.

"General government is just as important [as police and firefighters] for information about critical infrastructure, such as water, sewer, streets, maps," Junkins said.

The greatest strength of the system is that it brings everyone together, said Harrisonburg Mayor Rodney Eagle. The coverage, even in buildings in the city, will be improved by the system, said City Manager Kurt Hodgen.

Through a 2004 agreement, the city and county evenly divided the cost of the new radio system.

While more towers are in the county because of the wider geographic area, more service calls are in Harrisonburg, said Rockingham County Assistant County Administrator Stephen King. Two of the towers in the county help provide city coverage, King said.

The city and the county came to terms with M/A-COM in December 2004, according to Daily News-Record files, but the project experienced more than a year of delays, King said.

About six months of the delay could be attributed to acquiring sites for the 11 new communication towers, Junkins said. Nine of the towers are in the county and two are in the city.

Junkins said city and county officials sought to find the location for the towers that optimizes the coverage. Existing towers were not suitable for the system or had no space available, he said.

The project lost more time when the system was not ready for testing before the trees lost their leaves last fall, King said.

The test of the system had to wait until spring to determine what impact foliage would have on the transmissions.

Then, earlier this year, the system failed to pass a test to see if it would run without any problems for 30 days. The test was restarted and the system passed July 9.

Hutcheson said such difficulties could be expected when establishing such an intricate system in remote areas.

Officials also anticipate a few glitches when the system becomes operational, Hodgen said.

"There will be some tweaking to do," he said.

King acknowledged some difficulties could be expected, but he's still unhappy with how long it's taken to get the system up and running.

"We haven't been pleased with how long it has been delayed," King said.

Eagle agreed it's taken longer than he would have liked.

"It's certainly been frustrating," he said.

But it looks like the wait is nearly over. The FCC, Junkins said, has issued a conditional approval of the radio system if National Radio Astronomy Observatory officials agree.

With the towers up and radios installed, local government leaders are waiting on representatives from the observatory to inspect the system.

They will determine if the system violates the condition of the "quiet zone" in western Virginia. The zone is a federally protected area to ensure radio transmissions do not interfere with the observatory's mission of listening to outer space.

http://www.rocktownweekly.com/news_details.php?AID=29899&CHID=1
 
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