Radio frequency changeover to be costly for some towns

Posted Feb. 26, 2010, at 10:37 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 12:04 p.m.

DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — Cash-strapped communities fighting to fund basic municipal services now are faced with a costly conversion of radio frequencies.

To provide more airspace for radio traffic and improve communications, the Federal Communications Commission has mandated that all emergency providers upgrade their equipment from wide band to narrow band by Jan. 1, 2013.

While town and city officials acknowledge that an upgrade is needed to improve radio traffic, the fact that no federal funds are provided for the conversion is troubling to some, who say it is another unfunded mandate.

“From a communications standpoint, we welcome the idea that coverage would be expanded to more remote areas and be more reliable over a wider area, but we have cost concerns,” Dover-Foxcroft Town Manager Jack Clukey said this week.

Clukey and selectmen were told by Police Chief Dennis Dyer this week that it likely would cost the town about $20,000 to convert the radios and pagers for the police, fire and highway departments.

While no grants are available for the upgrade, Larry Willis, Hermon’s fire chief and president of the Penobscot County Fire Chiefs’ Association, said Hermon was “blessed” to have earlier received a large federal Emergency Management Agency grant to upgrade its equipment. “We knew it was coming,” he said.

“I am real concerned about how this is going to affect smaller departments,” Willis said. “In these small towns, it could affect them in a very, very negative manner [in terms of money].”

Walter Gibbons, Etna’s fire chief and a firefighter and emergency medical technician in Plymouth, said his community has been replacing its equipment and portable radios over the last four years. Most of Etna’s equipment is narrow-band-capable, but pagers will need to be replaced and that will be costly, he said. “It’s unfortu-nate it’s an unfunded need,” he said.

Plymouth, which hasn’t upgraded its equipment over the years, Gibbons said, will be faced with a costly project since the majority of the town’s trucks and hand-held radios need upgrading.

Roy Jones, the Maine Emergency Management Agency’s communications manager, said Thursday that the FCC regulation helps provide more space for licensing. He likened the change to adding a third lane to a two-way highway.

“What they’re [FCC] trying to do is create more space for frequencies,” Jones said. “What’s going to happen is after Jan. 1, [2013], if you have a license in narrow band and you’re getting interference, the person with the narrow band has the right of way?” he said.

The FCC is taking a hard stance on the new regulation and will not extend the deadline, Jones said. If an emergency provider is found in violation of the law, the FCC can give a cease-and-desist order, which means the provider would not be allowed to operate on the frequency. Failure to comply with the order could result in fines of up to $10,000, he said.

There are no specific funds for the conversion, Jones said, but he added that Homeland Security grants have helped some communities such as Etna and Hermon in the past. He said a public safety communications grant also was used to help other communities get new radios that are narrow-band-compliant.

Waldo County is ahead of other counties in that almost of all of its providers are narrow-band-equipped, Jones said. He said the licensing takes a bit of time, so communities should be preparing for the conversion now.

“I think it’s really important that a community needs to make sure that they check their license and that this [mandate] applies to them,” Jones said. “If it does, they should take an inventory of all their equipment and check it against the manufacturer to make sure that it could be converted to narrow band.”

Jones said meetings are being held with emergency providers around the state to discuss the pending regulation change.

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