The new system will give first responders better coverage inside buildings like schools and big box stores.
Emergency responders in Flagler County and Palm Coast will find it easier to communicate with one another when the county switches over to a new 800 MHz emergency radio system that will improve reception inside large buildings and in areas of the county that now have poor emergency radio coverage, according to officials.
The Palm Coast City Council heard the county's proposal for the radio system upgrade at a City Council workshop Nov. 27.
"You’re going to see the coverage substantially change from what you previously saw," Jarrod Shupe, the county's IT director, said in a presentation to the City Council. He displayed a map of the county, with the areas the new system would provide in-building coverage for — the vast bulk of the populated areas — shaded in red. A similar graphic of the current system, he said, would "look like Swiss cheese."
The county had originally hoped the $15 million upgrade would provide coverage in 90% of the service area when used outdoors west of U.S. 1, and 95% coverage indoors east of U.S. 1, he said. But with some changes in radio tower placement, the county expects to be able to provide coverage levels of 97% outdoors west of U.S. 1, and 95% indoors east of U.S. 1.
Although the county government is taking the lead on the change — the county owns and maintains the dispatch center and the emergency communications system — the conversion to a new system affects the city, since city government workers including fire rescue personnel and public works employees use the same radio equipment, and have been since the two governments merged their infrastructure through an interlocal agreement in 2009.
The City Council will have to approve a new interlocal agreement with the county for the new system, which will use 10-channel Association of Public Safety Communications Officials (APCO) Project 25 (P25) Phase II equipment to replace the county's 15-year-old, eight-channel Harris Enhanced Digital Access Communications System equipment, which is at the end of its life and no longer supported by Harris Corporation.
Under the proposed interlocal agreement, the city would contribute $1.5 million for the new system.
Interim City Administrator Beau Falgout said he was pleased with the process of negotiations between the city and the county on the interlocal agreement. "We’ve heard nothing but amazing things from our staff, internally, that this has been very well coordinated," he said. "I am unbvelieveabley proud of our two governments."
The new system, Shupe told the council, will rely on six radio towers placed on county land: a new, 250-foot one near the Matanzas Woods Parkway Interstate 95 interchange; a new, 350-foot one near Cody's Corner; a new, 190-foot one at Plantation Bay; a new, 350-foot one at the intersection of State Road 100 and County Road 305, a replacement 215-foot one at the county Jail Administration center, and a replacement 160-foot one at the county government complex on Moody Boulevard.
The change will involve 2,100 radio units and 15 dispatch consoles.
More talk paths will be available, and law enforcement channels will be encrypted.
The new handheld portable radios will have GPS tracking and will be waterproof, and the ones used for fire rescue will be "intrinsically safe": Their electrical components will be designed so that they can't create heat or sparks that would be dangerous at emergency scenes with combustible or explosive liquids or gases.
Palm Coast Mayor Milissa Holland asked Shupe if the new system would be able to communicate with neighboring counties in the event of an evacuation or multi-county incident.
Shupe said it would: In fact, Flagler County and Volusia County recently partnered on a shared tower at Plantation Bay.
Councilman Jack Howell mentioned the community's schools, which, along with concrete big box buildings, can cause reception issues for portable radios.
"My immediate concern is high schools," he said, mentioning school shootings. "They can’t afford to have a dead spot in those buildings."
He asked about the implementation timeline for the new system.
Shupe replied that the county hopes to install the new equipment this spring, implement the new radio system over the summer and test its use in the schools before students return from summer break.