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Fixing city's radio system will cost $1M more than expected
By STEVE COLLINS, The Bristol Press January 03, 2002
BRISTOL -- Fixing the city's emergency radio system -- which is afflicted with "dead spots" that make it impossible for police and fire personnel to make calls in some crucial areas -- will cost at least $1 million more than anticipated.
To clear the airwaves for public safety crews across town, the city needs to put up new antennas, install new servers and take other corrective measures estimated to cost as much as $3 million.

"It's quite a large number and it wasn't planned for," said Comptroller Glenn Klocko.

Contributing to the soaring expense is the recent discovery that Nextel pulled the plug on a backup radio antenna on Rattlesnake Mountain, earmarked for use if the main system went down, about six years ago.

Robley Newton, the city's former emergency planning coordinator, said that an ex-police chief, William Kohnke, apparently dropped the ball when the company notified the city that it was changing the service on a radio tower to cellular phone use.

Newton said the city has to have a backup system in case of a crisis that knocks out the main radio system.

The city earmarked $500,000 in this year's budget to start socking away money to upgrade its radios -- which often don't work near Bristol Eastern High School, Wal-Mart, Lake Compounce and other crucial spots -- and planned to spend another $1 million by 2003.

But the latest price tag puts the project at $2.7 million -- and replacing land phone lines with a microwave system between dispatchers and the towers would add another $300,000 or so.

Newton said that Motorola, the company whose radio equipment is used by the city, figured out that the computer server that runs the existing system can't handle the input from new tower locations needed to make sure dead spots are minimized.

Motorola told the city it will cost about $1.7 million to upgrade the existing system and take care of an emergency backup.

But to expand the radio system for two extra transmitting sites, which are needed to make sure communications reach the entire city, will cost another $1 million, a Motorola senior account manager, John Zaleski, wrote to Newton. Each extra site would cost $500,000, he said.

Newton said two more transmitters are needed.

Zaleski also urged the city to consider spending $300,000 more "to improve the reliability of the system" by replacing telephone lines between the towers and the server with a microwave system.

Newton said the city has no choice except to take care of the radio problems quickly.

"All emergency plans are based on communications," he said, and without the ability for public safety personnel to talk to one another in a crisis, major problems could arise.

Klocko said the Board of Finance has already given its blessing to spend $1.7 million to upgrade the existing system and add a backup to it. It will consider this month whether to approve another $1 million for new sites and the $300,000 microwave system, he said.

Klocko said that he's ready to sell bonds as soon as Feb. 11 to cover the tab for the system -- as well as the $1.2 million George Street reconstruction and two recent land buys -- but he's also not sure officials should jump into it so fast.

The city bought a sophisticated $1 million Motorola radio system in 1990 that can serve police, fire, public works and other city departments simultaneously.

The trunk system has five frequencies assigned to it so that calls can be automatically routed through on a channel that's open.

As of Monday, Motorola no longer offers parts or servicing for the 12-year-old system, Newton said.

According to minutes of an August 1999 meeting of key emergency personnel, the city's existing radio system has dead spots in a number of areas but it also suffers from technical problems with its circuitry and computers.

A confidential memorandum by Newton at the time said an electrical fire at the 40-year-old Willis Street tower site on South Mountain -- or even a brush fire there -- "could cripple citywide radio communication."

To make sure that emergency personnel can use their radios, officials have said, the city needs three towers -- on Chippens Hill, near Lake Compounce and somewhere in the northeastern section of town.

Newton said Nextel will let the city put its antenna on a tower in the northeastern section of town.

ŠThe Bristol Press 2002