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Move to Narrowband Radio System Could Cost $1.5M

Current radio communication system for first responders a 'danger' to public, according to Ridgewood OEM member who has pitched installation of a new system that will meet upcoming federal compliance requirements.

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.

Have a question or news tip? Contact editor James Kleimann at James.Kleimann@patch.com, or find us on Facebook and Twitter. For news straight to your inbox every morning, sign up for our daily newsletter.

Nick Santoro August 08, 2012 at 02:00 AM
Narrow banding is indeed a mandate from the FCC. The new law says NOTHING about converting to P25. P25 is a SCAM SCAM SCAM. You recieve no benefits from it. None. There is nothing wrong with good ole analog. It works perfect! And as far as encryption goes - another SCAM! The secret service needs encryption, that's about it. Local police DO NOT. For the amount of crimes being committed, maybe .0001% of criminals ever thing to use a scanner to listen. Millions of dollars spent for the one in one million guys who uses a scanner???? Ridiculous. Most moron criminals don't even know how to program the scanners.... Just comply with the law, and that's it....that can be done with software upgrades to a lot of the current radios
Bobby Lee August 08, 2012 at 02:08 AM
P25 digital is not all that everyone tries to make it out to be. My agency has been using our County's 800 MHz P25 System for almost four years and all of our police officers and firefighters still want to go back to VHF analog, but we are under contract with the County for 9-1-1 dispatch services so we have to stay on the system we are on and live with the dangers this system poses every day (more dead spots even though they added two more tower sites, poor audio quality, especially in high noise environments, etc.). P25 is a recommended national standard and not a mandate, so don't go there unless all other cities and counties in your area haven't already done so, and even then I would give it a second thought. P25 is typically two to three times more expensive to purchase than analog radios and also is more costly to maintain. If I were you I would not only turn my back and walk away from P25, but I would run away to never look back again!
Nick Santoro August 08, 2012 at 05:02 PM
I agree, Bobby Lee. These systems are overly complex and do not offer the benefits that the salesman tout. All these municipalities are being sold a bill of goods. For a quarter of the money, they could have upgraded your VHF analog system and made it flawless.
Fred Bozworth/CaptianFireDept August 08, 2012 at 11:54 PM
I agree those radio sytsems are a joke my fire department use the anolog system and it way better even on the repeater systems we have even on portable coverage is very good on our fire calls we are on VHF NarrowBand system and I do tower work on vhf communication systems for a radio shop in Missouri I some times in stall radio equipment repeaters mobiles antennas
Harold Eastman September 18, 2012 at 11:54 AM
P25 has NEVER been a mandate for complying with narrowband unless the grants underwriting the procurement require it. For the FCC, the only thing they care about is achieving narrowband efficiency. They don't care about how that's done, as long as it's type accepted. Most radios purchased after 1996 have the capability of narrowbanding simply by changing features during reprogramming. No one has ever mentioned how much of their fleets DON'T need a forklift in order to achieve compliance. Was it even evaluated, or did someone swoop in and say a wholesale replacement was "necessary?"

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