COMMUNICATIONS SYSTEM

Part of Jackson County's public safety communications network from a report done by TUSA Consulting.

Jackson County is considering ways to modernize its public safety communications system, but the price tag won't be cheap.

A communications consulting firm hired by the Jackson County Board of Commissioners that has studied the county's emergency radio needs estimates the cost of upgrading to a modern radio communications system will cost between $13-$21 million, depending on the exact configuration.

The county's radio communications network includes all public safety agencies and some other non-emergency agencies, such as public schools.

The consulting firm gave a brief presentation of its findings to the BOC at its Nov. 18 meeting. No action was taken by the board.

FINDINGS: The findings outlined in a 120-page needs assessment report from TUSA Consulting Services were largely critical of the county's existing public safety communications system.

"The DMR system used in Jackson County lacks many features that modern radio system have," the report said.

Among the specific problems found were:

• The county's current system is reaching the end of its life cycle and will soon need to be replaced. The current system is also outdated compared to other systems now available.

• The current system has inadequate radio coverage in some areas of the county, including some spots along I-85 and around the fast-growing Braselton area. That is especially true with the county's portable radios, the report said.

• The current system is unable to easily talk with surrounding counties or state emergency agencies because it isn't compatible with other area communities. TUSA said that although Braselton covers four counties, "Communicating with neighbors is nearly non-existent." Gwinnett, Hall, Barrow and Athens-Clarke counties all have modern 800 Mhz P25 systems while Banks and Madison use proprietary systems, all incompatible with Jackson County's existing system.

• The current county radios were designed for commercial markets, not public safety agencies which need more durable and robust units.

• Many of the county's nine communications link sites are lacking. Most have obsolete cooling and backup power systems and many are too small to expand to house a modern system. Some of the sites had not been well-maintained by the county. "Almost all of the existing buildings, and the compounds they reside in, cannot support the space needed for a modern public safety radio system without substantial cost...." the report said.

PROPOSALS: TUSA outlined two possible options for the county in upgrading its system to an 800 Mhz P25 system. One would be a stand alone system where the county upgrades all its radios and connecting systems on its own. The cost of doing that would be $16.3 to $21.3 million upfront with an estimated total cost over 15 years of $24 million.

The second proposal would have the county upgrading and working with Hall County for some joint operating, especially the ability to use existing Hall County towers that would negate the need for Jackson County to upgrade several of its existing nine tower sites. The cost of that plan would be $13-$17 million initially with a 15-year life cycle cost estimated at $19.3 million.

BACKGROUND: TUSA was initially brought in by the county to review a proposal from Motorola for upgrading the county's radio system. But TUSA said that Motorola's proposal fell short of what Jackson County needs.

"There are many items within this proposal that TUSA find concerning and would drastically increase the costs Jackson County would be responsible for, in addition to the price of the proposal," said TUSA's report.

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