Experiencing a dropped cellphone call in the Sierra is commonplace given the geography and rural nature of the community. No big deal, right? But it’s a bigger deal when the calls in question are on the county radio system, a system that helps 911, EMS, Police, Fire, and other services coordinate amongst themselves. If something occurs, like the house fire in Paradise on Saturday afternoon, and the response effort can’t be coordinated due to coverage issues between Bridgeport and Paradise, what began as a single home fire could rapidly escalate out of control.
In a presentation given to Mono County Supervisors on Tuesday morning and Mammoth Lakes Town Council Wednesday evening, Nate Greenberg, Mono County IT (Information Technology) Director, outlined the initial steps of a plan to overhaul a county dispatch system that features some glaring holes in its coverage and efficiency.
The estimated price tag: Anywhere from $8 to $12 million.
As outlined both in Greenberg’s written staff report and presentation, the IT department took over the responsibility of handling the county’s dispatch system in 2015, prior to which dispatch services had been handled by the Mono County Sheriff’s department.
“Since that time”, Greenberg wrote in his report, “The IT department has been working to identify, plan for, and resolve a variety of maintenance issues which had developed over the years. Through this work, it has become increasingly clear to staff that the need to replace the entire system is imminent.”
The information that Greenberg presented to the board was the result of a $50,000 study conducted by consulting firm Federal Engineering to “identify system use cases, coverage needs and more clearly define technical requirements.”
Federal Engineering identified a number of vulnerabilities and overall issues that include repeaters at the end of their product life cycle (no more replacement parts), poor coverage and audio quality for all county channels, terrain blockage, and interference stemming from placement of the antenna.
The list goes on: a need to select the correct repeater based on location, difficulties identifying how to respond to radio calls, and tendencies for users to “step on” other conversations without knowing it. In other words: the system is inconsistent and requires fiddling with channels to even operate properly.
Three possible solutions
Federal Engineering came up with three possible solutions for Mono County to consider.
The least expensive, Alternative 1, carries an $8.3 million price tag that would see a new system across the board, but the issue of selecting the correct channel based off of closest repeater remains.
For another $1 million, Alternative 2A would feature an analog simulcast system that would broadcast on all repeaters, overcoming channel selection issues but leaving Admin and EMS channels still selecting the best channels.
Alternative 2B would bump the cost up $11.7 million and is based on a new system design, P25, that supports digital encryption. Nevertheless, the same issue of channel selection for Admin and EMS operators would persist as the extra cost stems from licensing the P25 technology.
All alternatives include new equipment, additional sites, and improved coverage; the difference lies in the level of technology employed.
“We recognize that a $12 million price tag is … it’s a tough nut to crack,” said Greenerg, who expressed a need to explore creative solutions for the financing aspect of the project.
One way of going about this, according to Greenberg was to employ a “vendor-agnostic approach” which would determine best standards and practices and then bring in vendors to see how they would address the needs.
This approach would give Mono County “A single throat to choke in terms of vendors,” said Greenberg.
Supervisor Fred Stump, who noted that four of the most poorly funded fire districts are in his district (2), asked Greenberg about replacing an out-of-date and varied system. Greenberg responded by stating “Yes, we’re budgeting $3.5 million to replace subscriber units”. Greenberg also explained that some of the units may not need the P25 encryption, which would reduce some costs and also noted that some entities, like Mammoth Fire, are able to handle their own equipment costs.
“They’re replacing their own units,” said Greenberg, “They’ve budget for that.”
At the Mammoth Lakes Town Council meeting on Wednesday evening, Greenberg was questioned about how this plan factors into a previous presentation he had made about a regional dispatch system.
For now, “It’s just Mono”, said Greenberg, who admitted that there is “clearly a nexus or overlap between the two topics. If we moved to a regional model, it would all be operated out of the same facility” but noted that “it would still be disparate radio networks.”
Councilmember Cleland Hoff questioned why the estimate had jumped so much since Council last heard from Greenberg, who explained “In my defense, when pressed for a number, I gave a number in the ballpark of $5-$10 million,” noting that such an estimate came prior to the Federal Engineering assessment.
Hoff pursued the line of questioning, stating that “We’re definitely going to have to look into the funding options,” likening the situation to “kids asking for a new iPhone when the old iPhone is working”
Greenberg pushed back on the analogy, stating “We’re already spending millions bringing people to the region” and gave his opinion on Hoff’s comparison. “Is the old iPhone working? I would argue not.”
Mayor Pro Tem Lynda Salcido spoke in support of Greenberg, referencing her own experiences with the system. “it’s amazing they’re able to do what they do with the system they have”, said Salcido. She explained that in North county, “They do a radio check in the morning to see if they can talk to the hospital that day”, and concluded by stating that “It’s amazing we patched it together as long as we have.”
Mayor Bill Sauser asked for assurance that “What we’re building isn’t a Cadillac” as opposed to a Yugo, with Greenberg responding that “We have a Yugo with three wheels right now.”
Mammoth Lakes Police Chief Al Davis stepped to the podium in support of Greenberg’s plan and efforts, and gave his own assessment of the current system.
“If it weren’t for Nate’s crew,” said Davis, “Our Yugo would’ve died about nine months ago. Four different times.”