Ridgewood and Glen Rock have just months to meet federal compliance standards for public safety radio communication upgrades or risk facing a loss of license or even a $100,000 fine.
In recent weeks, Kevin Scarpa, of Ridgewood Office of Emergency Management, has proposed that Ridgewood completely replace its greying analog system and upgrade to a "P25" digital-analog mixed-mode narrowband technology system on VHF.
The cost, according to Scarpa, will total a whopping $1.5 million. Village staff is hopeful Glen Rock will agree to split the cost 50-50. The two share services from the same dispatch center, Northwest Bergen Central Dispatch, based in Ridgewood.
Though both municipalities would have to make costly upgrades no matter what to meet the The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deadline of Jan. 1, 2013, the reasons to upgrade are strong on their own merits, Scarpa said.
"It isn't a safe system," Scarpa said of the current communications infrastructure. "We have severe coverage issues in town."
Numerous first responders told Patch his statement is no exaggeration. They expressed frustration that defective equipment is still in service and replacements are slow to arrive.
The current system is a hodgepodge of 20-30-year-old parts connected with receivers. Many of the portable radios, responders said, are incapable of reaching other units in the field, depending on location.
"This device is probably the most important device to a fireman, police officer or EMT," Scarpa told the council on July 11. "The reason for that is this device is going to save my life if I need help, it's going to save the life of the person who needs help that I can't help them with..."
Problem zones include Village Ford near the Ho-Ho-Kus border, Goffle Road and many sections of The West Side.
The only alternative outlined by Scarpa is a continued "patching" of the existing system. Any upgrades would still need to meet the federal narrowband standard by Jan. 1, 2013 and will still cost a significant amount of money, he said, though he offered no specific figures.
"I believe patching a system and placing fixes to it is not financially sound nor is it going to provide a long-term solution, which is why I propose a new system to you," Scarpa said.
Scarpa said the P25 system – which would contain fiber optic lines, a greater number of communication channels with encryption options, and software upgrades for Central Dispatch – could be funded with federal grant money, accounting for as much as 80-90 percent of the costs.
Because the system would be serving a regional network (Ridgewood and Glen Rock, but could house other neighboring towns as well), he said the chance is good grant money is ripe for the taking.
Still, it's a plan not without challenges. The village still has no guarantee it would receive such funding, particularly with the county dispatch center's expansion aims.
There are also concerns on the part of the village council that the system will be lapped by technology so quickly it won't be worth the cost.
Further, Glen Rock officials very well could balk at paying for half the project when its population is less than half of Ridgewood and its coverage area also significantly smaller. Its police radios are digital and meet the narrowband requirement, officials said.
Glen Rock Mayor John van Keuren told Patch the borough council has not had any substantive conversations on the village's still-in-the-works plan. He said he was not aware of any alternate in-house plans should Glen Rock decline to pair with Ridgewood.
The Ridgewood village council will discuss the communication upgrade requirements during its 7:00 p.m. work session on Wednesday, Aug. 8.
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