Boone, Campbell, Kenton band together to create better communication among safety officials

Effort could cost up to $30 million
Posted at 7:00 AM, Nov 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-11-19 07:00:02-05

KENTON COUNTY, Ky. -- When a Kenton County sheriff’s officer tries to communicate with a local fire official on their way to a fire or rescue scene, they can’t do it directly and sometimes can’t talk to each other at all.

Blame emergency communication equipment in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties that is so outdated parts are hard to find, say county experts.

It’s why the three counties have come together to replace all of it by sharing the expense, which could range from $20 million to $30 million or more combined, according to county officials. A request for proposals (RFP) is already out and potential vendors have been visiting the counties, said Tommy Thompson, executive director of the Kenton County Emergency Communications Center.

The current system has been manipulated to work – switching to a different radio to communicate with Cincinnati on river rescues, for example, or using a cell phone when a cellular signal can be picked up. Or sometimes it just means being unable to communicate, as is the case from many spots inside St. Elizabeth Edgewood to team members right outside.

“In a major event, police can’t talk to fire,” Thompson said, explaining that the new system would operate at 800 megahertz, while current systems operate at 155 and 450 megahertz.

“That was the way they did it back in the ’70s,” he said. “This is like going from eight-track to MP3.”

It will give all three counties 95 percent coverage, Thompson said. Today that coverage is far less, from 60 percent to 70 percent.

“We’re all in the same boat,” said Dale Edmondson, director of the Campbell County 911 Center. “We’ve learned that in this day and age, everyone needs to be able to talk to everybody. We can’t do that right now.”

Officials in all three counties say they don’t expect a price hike for residents. Joe Shriver, Kenton County administrator, said his county would likely bond the expense across a short period, possibly 10 to 20 years.

However, the financing part of the puzzle won’t happen until after the RFPs come back and can be reviewed and compared.

“This is probably the biggest project I’ve seen in my (18-year) career – having all three counties being able to talk to each other,” Shriver said. “It allows us to talk to Cincinnati, as well.”

Boone County Fiscal Court Judge Executive Gary Moore said the new system would allow communications in southeastern Indiana as well.

New system requirements also include communications access from inside buildings, which is sketchy today, said Thompson.

The RFP requires bidders to make sure the system works in all kinds of buildings from schools to churches, high-rises and places like the Newport Aquarium.

Thompson said some people question why the system can’t be based on cell phones. “There’s no coverage in rural areas,” he said. “And, if there’s a system failure, there’s no backup system.”

Each county will have its own bid for infrastructure, which could include a core station for all three counties and two satellite stations, said Thompson. Radio equipment and mobile equipment are part of the price. County officials say they expect to save money by buying in bulk.

Ultimately, everyone will be safer.

“The bottom line is there will not be a single point of failure in the future,” said Thompson. “This system can even handle a lightning strike.”

More information

Residents can read the Request for Proposals on the Northern Kentucky Area Development website here.