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County eyes its own radio system

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A new radio system could cost between $7 to $15 million

By Kirsten Laskey

A Department of Homeland Security grant could help the county council determine whether or not to invest millions of dollars in an upgrade of the county’s public safety communications system.

Los Alamos County Council voted 6-1 to approve a $68,775 New Mexico Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management grant during a meeting in March.

Councilor Vincent Chiravalle cast the lone no vote.

The grant will be used to expand on a 2009 study that looked at optic fiber, broadband and radio, Emergency Management Coordinator Phil Taylor told the Los Alamos Monitor. Crestino Telecommunications Solutions, a consulting firm based in Albuquerque, conducted the study under the county’s information and technology department.

Taylor said the consulting firm is now being asked to update the section regarding the county’s radio system and see if specifications from the original study are still valid.

He added the consultants will focus on the public safety radio communication and infrastructure as well as tweak the system’s users to include Los Alamos Public Schools.

Ultimately, the study would be used to issue a request for proposals (RFP) to radio vendors. Taylor said it would be realistic to have the RFP developed by the end of the year.

The cost for the study is $50,000 but the cost for a new radio system is estimated to be anywhere from $7 million to $15 million.

There are several reasons for the study. Currently, the county is using the Los Alamos National Laboratory radio system, Taylor said. This can be problematic because not all areas in Los Alamos County receive good coverage or any coverage at all, he said.  

Furthermore, in 2009 the county approached LANL to see if their system could include other county functions in addition to police, fire and emergency medical services but LANL turned down the request.

In a letter from the National Nuclear Security Administration Los Alamos Site Office to the county, it was stated that expanding the current radio system would not likely be approved by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The letter also stated LANL already had worked to improve the system such as upgrading the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) antenna system and enhancing radio channel recording capability and replacing the microwave link between the EOC and the radio tower on Pajarito Mountain.

The letter concluded LANL did not see the need to support additional studies of coverage or expanding options to operate amongst different agencies.

Taylor said this puts the county in a bind because there are times when the county needs everyone on one, common radio.

“We’re looking to enhance not only users but the coverage,” he said.
Plus, Taylor said the current system “is not our radio system. We don’t own it. He, who owns the asset, controls it.”

For instance, he said if the radio tower on Pajarito Mountain goes down during a weekend, LANL officials may not be inclined to immediately fix it and the county would not be able to do anything about it.

Besides owning its own radio, Taylor said the county would like to include Los Alamos Public Schools and its transportation department in order to enhance public safety.

There are two other parts to this grant. Taylor said the county is planning a full-scale emergency exercise in August 2012, which would take place at Los Alamos High School.

Taylor said the exercise will be the first one the county has conducted. In the past, the county has participated in exercises at LANL. He said the county needs to test its emergency capabilities in a scenario that does not include the lab. The exercise will cost $12,500.

“That’s the responsible thing to do,” Taylor said.

Additionally, money would be used to replace 31 radios at Los Alamos schools. The new ones, according to agenda documents, will have narrow-band capabilities, meaning the bandwidth of the message does not significantly exceed to the radio channel’s coherence bandwidth.  Taylor said the cost to replace the radios is about $6,000.

During the meeting, Councilor Mike Wismer said he supported the study. “The future of public safety is at risk,” he said, unless the study is conducted.

Councilor Geoff Rodgers also said he supported the study but wondered if 31 radios for the school could really be purchased for $6,000.

Los Alamos Police Chief Wayne Torpy said it was not impossible.

Taylor added purchasing the radios will be only a short-term interim solution. “This is just to get us through,” he said.

Not everyone agreed the study was a good idea. Chiravalle said he felt the estimated cost for the radio system was too high.