MEDIA — Delaware County Council approved more than $1 million for upgrades to the county emergency services communications six days before a meeting that will outline the need for at least $20 million more for a system overhaul.
On Wednesday, council unanimously approved buying 150 Zebra EVM XPLORE 10-inch tablets from Pomeroy for $410,593.80 and spending up to $603,323.38 to have Zetron Corp. provide upgraded hardware, software, licensing and professional services regarding the county's primary 911 dispatch center, while also equipping a back-up center.
Council also announced that at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the County Council Meeting Room in the Government Center at 201 W. Front St. in Media, representatives from Exton, Pa.-based V-COMM LLC will be presenting an overview and Power Point outlining an evaluation they did of the county's 911 communications system and where improvements need to be made. County officials expect this overhaul to eventually cost about $20-30 million or more.
"These asks are a lot of money," County Councilwoman Elaine Paul Schaefer said. "There has been a long-delayed investment in some of our equipment for our emergency services. These two things that we're looking at ... are the first of many investments that we're going to have to make ... We have paid for and received a study looking at the overall system that needs to be replaced and it has a very big price tag."
County Councilman Kevin Madden added, "It's unacceptable to have our first responders and our law enforcement ... out there not being able to effectively utilize the radio in a life or death situation."
One one Saturday in September, the county 911 center noted four or five separate instances during which emergency personnel were unable to reach the county 911 center with their portable radios because of a situation called "ducting." Emergency responders use the 500 T-band frequency, which was sold to television stations so digital signals could be boosted. However, under certain weather conditions like heavy cloud cover, signals from those stations bounce back and portable radios like those carried by police and firefighters have a hard time getting through.
Chris Eiserman, second vice president of the Fraternal Order of Police of Delaware County Lodge 27, has said the only way to fix this is with a new system.
At the same time, the Federal Communications Commission issued an unfunded mandate requiring that public safety radio systems must move to a higher bandwith such as the 700 band by 2022. The tab to meet such a standard is not cheap. For Delaware County, the bill could come to approximately $40 million.
On Tuesday, officials from V-COMM, who authored the 911 system study, will be present to give a report on their findings and to answer questions anyone from the public may have.
According to county Emergency Services Director Timothy Boyce, the county radio system has three primary functions - the telephone system that involves the intake of phone calls; the computer-aided dispatch in which 911 staff input information they receive from telephone callers; and the radio system, which is a land mobile radio system under review.
Boyce explained farther how the system works.
"When we receive calls, we put them in the computer-aided dispatch system," he said. "While you hear it on the radio, it's also sent real-time to all our law enforcement partners. They currently receive that information on mobile data computers and mobile data terminals."
Boyce explained that the mobile data terminal system had been a radio-based system and that over the past year, the county has been moving to a cellular-based one.
"The radio-based system has security flaws in it," he said. "It's no longer consistent with best practice and the cellular network system meets those and is a far less expensive project."
Boyce said that in 2016 there were more than 600 of these terminals being used in Delaware County. Firefighters and medics have migrated to another operating system, but law enforcement officers still require the use of these in their cars, Boyce explained.
"These computers in the car are how our officers receive information," he said. "They receive secure information on it. They use it every single day. It is, without a doubt, a tool that they need."
Boyce said three different models were tested over the last year, including one the Pennsylvania state police have at approximately $2,500 per unit and one from Dell for about $2,200. The Zebra EVM XPLORE approved by council is about $1,700 per unit, with an additional $1,000 for all the features for a total cost of approximately $2,700 per unit.
He added that the departments are picking up the cost of installing the system.
With the FCC mandate looming over the county, Boyce added, "It's going to help us bridge this three- or four-year gap as we replace the system and provide the direct officer safety tool."
County Councilwoman Christine Reuther added that there will be compatibility between this new equipment and any system purchased in the future.
"This is not an incremental spend that will be followed by a new incremental spend," she said. "This is something that should be able to plug in and be part of or be compatible with our new system."
Boyce agreed, saying the legacy systems required that everything be purchased from one vendor and in this case, county officials are working to not box themselves into any one particular vendor."
Then, the director talked about the Zetron Corp. hardware and software system for the primary dispatch center and a back-up center.
"The Zetron system is the operating platform we communicate with from our dispatchers to law enforcement," Boyce said. "We speak on computers, those computers have log recorders, they are able to hit any sector."
It's the original system at the 911 center and it operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week, answering 1 million calls a year with millions of radio transmissions.
"This is, without a doubt, the critical part of our communications system and frankly cannot fail," Boyce said.
With the current hardware and software four years old, Boyce said he'd like to upgrade the center's computers and have them come installed.
And, with this motion, the county also will be establishing a back-up center.
"We've had a back-up plan that is sub-par, that has frankly been sub-par for some time," Boyce said.
He said a back-up center would be created close to the port in Chester and would allow for operations if a disaster were to take place and staff had to operate at another location and would also allow for maintenance.
In addition, the county Criminal Investigative Division is anticipated to do a partnership with the 911 center back-up and other departments would have access to the facility as needed.
More discussion on the 911 Center's needs will take place Tuesday.
"We've heard you and all of our first responders loud and clear as the urgency of addressing a legacy radio system," Madden said. "We're going to be addressing this as soon as we possibly can in a responsible way for taxpayers because this is a very, very large investment of $20, $30 million plus dollars."