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Palm Coast Tuesday, Feb. 16, 2016 3 years ago

Tall order? Proposed emergency radio system upgrade may require 350-foot metal towers, including in Palm Coast

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There are other options — like using more than a dozen shorter towers — but they're more expensive.
by: Jonathan Simmons News Editor

Most people like their neighborhoods to have clear cell phone signals and efficient emergency services. Fewer people like their neighborhoods to have the tall, often ugly communications towers needed for crisp cell reception and clear radio communication between first responders.

But Palm Coast may need more towers — the big, metal lattice kind, about 350 feet each — for the county to upgrade the radio system its emergency responders use, according to county staff.

That may cause problems.

“Palm Coast is not aware of any proposed lattice towers — high, tall lattice towers — in our community,” City Manager Jim Landon said in an interview Feb. 16.

County staff, Landon said, hadn’t yet told the city administration that a proposed upgrade to the county’s 800 MHz emergency radio system could well require 350-foot tall, lighted, hurricane-proof lattice towers in developed areas of the city of Palm Coast.

“If that’s the case,” he said, “We need to start having this conversation now.”

Each proposed tower, Landon confirmed, would have to be approved individually by the Palm Coast City Council. Residents tend to protest proposed towers in their area, telling their elected representatives that the towers would ruin the view or pose a danger to wildlife or to nearby homes.

Just last year, the County Commission rejected one application for a tower and tabled an application for a second tower after residents came to County Commission meetings to complain about the towers’ potential impact on the scenery and local wildlife. (The tower that had its application tabled at a Sept. 9, 2015 meeting was ultimately approved later.)

HOW HIGH?

Most of the current towers in the county are between 220 and 230 feet, according to Flagler County Public Safety Emergency Manager Kevin Guthrie, and they don’t provide perfect coverage — especially in buildings.

Most of the communication towers within the Palm Coast city  limits are the monopole kind, which are shorter and can be disguised as flag poles. 

There are a few lattice towers, positioned out of the way of homes: One is on U.S. 1 near the Forest Service station; another is on Utility Drive.

If the county puts the new, digital technology on its current lattice towers, according to Guthrie, the towers would have about 10% to 20% less coverage than they do now.

To maintain its coverage area with towers that height with the new digital technology, the county would have to go from five towers to eight towers. Towers that are around 350 feet tall have about a half-mile to a mile more coverage than the shorter ones the county has been using so far.

There are options other than lattice towers, such as building more than a dozen small ones (see the box at right), but those alternatives are more expensive.

THE TIMELINE

Though they use the same emergency radio system, city and county officials have disagreed on  when the county should upgrade.

The county’s current system will be unsupported by the manufacturer at the end of 2017. The county hopes to send out a RFP for the upgrade in the 2017-18 fiscal year, build towers in 2018 and 2019 and roll out its new digital communications system in 2020.

But city officials think that’s too slow.

“We think that a lot more urgency should be placed on this, precisely because the manufacturer, at the end of 2017, won’t support the system,” Landon said. “They’re basically saying that there will be old, used parts (available). Well, I don’t think that’s a good way to maintain an emergency communications system.”

Landon said that he’d urged the county to follow tech experts’ advice to upgrade its Computer Aided Dispatch system two years ago, but the county waited, and the system crashed last year. “It feels like it could happen here, also,” Landon said. “We are hoping the county won’t make the same mistake with their radio system.”

County officials have said there are still many places to get replacement parts for the system, and that the county’s contract with provider Communications International requires repairs to be made within two hours to law enforcement equipment and four hours to fire department equipment, as long as parts are available. That contract extends through January 2021.

Guthrie said of the county’s timeline that “(County administrator Craig Coffey) bought what I sold him. I told him it didn’t make sense to jump to the new system while we are still paying off this one, especially since we have contract with our vendor to provide us service. ”

THE MONEY

County officials aren’t sure precisely how much the new system would cost. If the county goes with a system like the one in St. Johns County, which has very high coverage, it would cost more than $20 million. Meanwhile, city officials have said the city needs to know how much it will have to pay into the system, so it can plan.

“I  need to know — and this council needs to know now — what are the anticipated costs to the city going to be in 2020 or 2021, or whenever the county anticipates putting this new system in ... if we’re going to proceed with our idea of trying to pay cash whenever possible,” Mayor Jon Netts said at a meeting Feb. 16. 

The county is still working to determine how much horizontal coverage it needs — right now it’s at about 85%, while St. Johns has an “unusually high standard at 97% coverage in horizontal mode,” Guthrie said — which dictates how tall the towers will need to be, and where they’ll need to be.

Then, next year, the county will begin acquiring land for the equipment and send out an RFP.

For now, Landon said, the city will “start developing a strategic plan for the new system for our needs and our equipment,” in coordination with other emergency radio system users, including the Sheriff’s Office, Flagler Beach and Bunnell.

“We would like for the county, and we’ll request for the county, to be involved with that immediately,” Landon said. “The storm, the fire — they don’t recognize political boundaries, and we all need to be able to communicate.”

This story has been corrected to reflect that the county's current radio system will be unsupported by the manufacturer at the end of 2017, and that one of the two communications towers that was not approved at a Sept. 9 2015 meeting was ultimately approved later.

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