County applies for FEMA grant to upgrade communication system

County applies for FEMA grant to upgrade communication system


Brittney Burns – Staff Writer

Macon County Emergency Management Director Warren Cabe has been working to upgrade the county’s communication system, switching from analog to digital coverage throughout the year, and with the help of a FEMA grant, may be able to save the county thousands of dollars.

“Digital coverage remains clear and consistent longer where analog coverage, which is what we currently have, becomes scratchy towards the fringe areas and unreadable,” explained Cabe. “Programming of subscriber units can also be done over the air and by using a trunked system, no one agency is assigned a particular frequency, and can access any open and available frequency within a talk group.”

While the need to update the county’s system is evident and something commissioners supported in their budget to do over the span of a few years, a FEMA grant may make the transition process quicker, while saving the county money.

“A lot of subscriber units [portable radios, mobile radios] are not digital capable,” explained Cabe. “We budgeted $100,000 in our capital budget this year for a small supply of replacement subscriber units for each of the 11 fire departments and EMS to get them started on a new system without any expense on their part. By leveraging these funds as our 10 percent match for the FEMA Assistance for Firefighters Grant (AFG), we can replace all of our subscriber units for fire and EMS – 487 portable radios, 222 mobile radios, 10 mobile repeaters –  without any change in our budget.”

EMS applied for the 2016 FEMA Assistance for Firefighters Grant through Macon County EMS in conjunction with the fire departments in Macon County for a regional grant. The total grant is for $1,097,000 with the federal share being $997,728 and Macon County share is $99,722, which has already been budgeted this fiscal year.

“We are converting our radio communications system into a digitally-capable trunked-type system to ensure the most effective use of our frequencies and improve our communications coverage,” said Cabe. “Our current system has not significantly changed in almost 30 years and new technologies are available to improve upon emergency communications. The end user must now decide which tower site to access manually and a new system can act much like cellular telephones and decide which tower serves the user best based on location. We believe that this functionality along with improvements to our existing tower locations along with possibly adding one or two more tower locations will improve our coverage area and prepare this system for another 20 or so years of life.”

The transition from analog to digital will happen with or without the grant because of the necessity for functionality and effectiveness within the Emergency Management Departments and local fire departments. Tower upgrades and connectivity between the sites should be completed by June 30, 2017, and equipment upgrades can take place in fiscal year 2017-2018. According to Cabe, this is at best a 24-month project, depending on licensing and other factors.