COLUMBIA — Columbia and Boone County public safety agencies are about 95 percent finished with updates to their radio communications system that has been in the works since 2003.
The radio infrastructure project is intended to improve the ability of police, sheriff's officials, firefighters and emergency medical workers to communicate with the Joint Communications and Information Center. Emergency Management Director Zim Schwartze told the Columbia City Council during a Monday work session that the department is planning to finish the project in the spring.
In the pre-council meeting in the Daniel Boone City Building on Monday evening, Emergency Management Director Zim Schwartze introduced three categories of the radio towers in Boone County.
- Four transmit towers such as Grissum Building and Route NN towers.
- Some transmit and receive towers such as Rocheport and Harrisburg towers.
- Several receive towers, which are also the newest, such as White Pole and KOMU towers.
“We are just around the corner,” Schwartze said.
The project budget estimated a cost of $1.6 million in 2009. Because the type and the price of equipment has changed over the past two years, the estimated cost of the project since 2009 has risen to $1.8 million.
The cost is being shared by city agencies, including the Columbia Fire, Police and Emergency Management departments, the Boone County and Southern Boone County fire protections districts and the Boone County Sheriff's Department.
The project is mainly about improving the coverage of radio signals for portable walkie-talkie and fixed radio devices in vehicles so that police officers, firefighters and ambulance staff can better communicate with each other during emergencies.
Columbia Fire Department Deputy Chief Randy White said the radio system complements cell phones. Although the radio system in a sense is redundant, it can ensure that public safety agencies can still communicate when cell phone networks are overloaded.
At the Monday work session, Schwartze showed the council maps with different-colored areas representing the various levels of radio coverage. She said topography is the biggest cause of spotty radio coverage.
“We have lots of hills, dips and valleys in Columbia, so there are areas that many police officers and firefighters can’t hear us,” she said, adding that western Boone County is the area with the least consistent coverage.
Schwartze said the best way to improve the system is to add more radio devices to towers that are in more strategic spots. When the project is done, there will be 21 radio sites throughout the county. The towers are broken down into transmit towers, receive towers and towers that serve both functions.
Schwartze said the update of the Harrisburg tower is a case in point. In June, Ira Hubbell donated a piece of property on Coyote Hill in northwestern Boone County for use as a radio site. A tower that previously stood near Orr Street in downtown Columbia was moved there, which resulted in a significant improvement in radio coverage, Schwartze said.
MU also agreed to install a radio device on KOMU’s existing tower south of Columbia.
Joint Communications is using VHF High Band, which is mandated by the Federal Communications Commission to narrow its radio bandwidth down to at least 12.5 kHz by Jan. 1, 2013.
“A few years back, the FCC came to a ‘narrowbanding mandate’ to take all bands into their frequency, so you have to shut everything you are doing smaller,” Schwartze said. “Not only we are building more sites to help with the coverage, but we are also preparing for this mandate.”
The mandate intends to ensure more efficient use of the spectrum and greater spectrum access for public safety and nonpublic safety users, according to the FCC’s website. It also aims to ensure nobody is left out of communication during emergencies by setting standards for radio operations.
Schwartze said the mandate actually can help improve the quality of local radio coverage.
“We are getting it narrower because it is getting too crowded,” Schwartze said. “This is a problem that happens all around the country. This is not just here.”