- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The current emergency communications system in St. Mary’s County never worked as expected. There are several areas in the county where first responders have trouble communicating on their portable radios, putting them in danger.
On Tuesday, the county commissioners signed a $34 million contract with Harris Corp. to overhaul, enhance and improve the emergency communications system during the next 15 years.
The county’s 911 towers provide the communications support for police, firefighters and ambulance crews. There are an average of 250 emergency 911 calls made in St. Mary’s each day, said Bob Kelly, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Public Safety and Information Technology.
For portable radios carried by first responders, coverage is less than 80 percent across the county, Kelly said. Reception in areas of Hollywood, the 7th District, Valley Lee and Compton are particularly poor.
Under the new contract with Harris Corp., “95 percent of the county will be covered,” Kelly said.
Installation of the current system was completed in June 2003 for a total cost of $10.8 million. After January 2014, there will be no more technical support for the system. The company that ran it, MA/COM was subsequently bought out by Harris.
As part of the new contract, new towers will be added to the existing ones within 13 months to expand radio coverage, Kelly said.
Mobile radios, those within vehicles, pull in signals more easily and already have 90 percent coverage, the county’s consultant, RCC, said.
Portable radios also have trouble within institutions — strongly built structures like schools, the jail or the hospital, Kelly said.
Harris will guarantee coverage within those types of buildings by phase three of the upgrade, he said.
Commissioner Larry Jarboe (R) asked what kind of assurances county government will have that the new system will deliver the coverage promised.
Harris has St. Mary’s County divided into 1,466 coverage grids. The contract allows failing coverage in only 74 of them. “If they fail 75, they have to take the action to correct that,” Kelly said.
Commissioner Dan Morris (R) said he’s familiar with hearing from volunteer firefighters about trouble spots in coverage. “I just want to make sure this system suffices for their needs,” he said.
The new contract locks in a set rate of maintenance for the next 15 years to be performed by the information technology division, Kelly said. Under the old deal, maintenance would vary from year to year.
Plans for a new emergency communications system have been budgeted for years. Of the $34 million contract cost, Kelly said Wednesday, “There’s no sticker shock. This was planned two years ago.”
“From a financial point of view, I think we’re in good shape,” said Commissioner Todd Morgan (R). “It’s good. It’s really good.”
There are towers in the county now in Mechanicsville, Leonardtown, California and Dameron.
In the first phase of the new contract, the Dameron site will be moved to a higher tower on state property also in Dameron. Two new towers will be used at Bushwood and Valley Lee. In the second phase, four more sites will be added, and then three more tower sites in the last phase for a total of 13 towers.
Procurement negotiations between county government and Harris went up the last minute before the commissioners voted to approve the contract.
The commissioner meeting had to be interrupted as last-minute details came in.