Lycoming County radio system overhaul estimated at $7.4M

Lycoming County officials have hinted at overhauling its public safety communication system on various occasions over the past year.

On Tuesday morning, the commissioners heard a presentation from Michael McGrady, president of MCM Consulting Group, detailing that a study lasting longer than nine months showed such an overhaul will cost about $7.4 million.

“That’s to build a system that’s going to last you for up to 20 years,” he said. “It’s a pretty good investment.”

The brunt of that cost comes from replacing radio systems and equipment, estimated at about $4.95 million. The main goal there is to replace the Quantar base station transmitters, which reach their end-of-life in 2020, meaning organizations no longer will service the stations and parts will be unavailable.

“Very great piece of equipment, but they have not been manufactured in over seven years,” McGrady said. “They no longer make replacement parts for them and, as of 2020, there’s no more support on software, hardware, things like that. So, unless you want to buy your parts on eBay, it’s time to replace them.”

McGrady suggested replacing the Quantar base stations with stations that are both analog and digital-capable, to ensure the county isn’t in trouble should the Federal Communication Commission someday mandate that radio systems go from analog to digital.

“If the FCC finally mandates that you have to go to a digital system, literally it’s a software upgrade,” he said.

The recommendation also means that personnel can continue to use their current analog radios.

“Countywide, you’re looking at $4 or $5 million (to replace analog radios),” he said. “Luckily, we don’t have to do that.”

Another issue is providing coverage to more of the county. The proposed budget for this overhaul allocates about $1 million toward building two new tower sites and another $650,000 to adding five new microwave hops for connectivity.

Although there is room in the tower-building budget for remediation to any of the eight current tower sites, McGrady said those are “in emmaculate condition.”

“I’ve never gone to a county and surveyed tower sites where we didn’t have remediation issues, so that shows you how well the county’s doing to maintain their tower sites,” he said. “You have a great system today, you just need to add to it.”

Finally, the consulting, engineering and project management costs are estimated at $440,000, which leaves a contingency of about $352,000.

“You always want a contingency, because you never know what you’re going to get into,” McGrady said. “That money is not spent unless you need to spend it.”

To discover the most poignant communication system needs and piece together a proposed budget, the consulting group surveyed and interviewed dozens of entities including police, fire, Emergency Management Services and government officials at both the county and municipal levels.

In addition to expanding coverage, the overhaul should help with interoperability between all those groups, McGrady said.

“We talked about usage and interoperability — if you have a major accident on a thoroughfare, can police, fire and EMS talk to each other?” he asked.

To help fund the project, McGrady suggested a few ideas, including taking out a bond or entering into lease-to-own agreements with companies for specific equipment needed.

There also are several grants available that could help cut costs, such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s assistance to firefighters grant, which once aided another county in its communication system overhaul with about $440,000, he said.

The commissioners have no plans to make a decision on the matter at this time, stating such a costly project needs to be discussed more in-depth.

“It’s definitely on our radar, and the preference is to start sooner than later, but we have to figure out how we’re going to pay for it,” Commissioner Jack McKernan said. “I don’t see it coming on our agenda anytime soon, but we’ll have it figured out by the time we do the budget.”