Last year, Dodge County chose to update its emergency radio system for first responders, hoping to address ongoing communications issues with the Dodge County Sheriff’s Department.
But for the dozen or so rural fire departments and law enforcement entities throughout the county, a decision remains.
In July, the county entered into an agreement with Motorola Solutions to build four new radio towers that would accommodate a new 700/800 Mhz radio system, part of a network called ORION — a massive $11 million project that would build four new radio towers throughout the county and contributed to a tax raise last year. Individual law enforcement and fire entities still have the opportunity to opt out of upgrading their radio equipment to join the new system.
And while the Dodge County Sheriff’s Department is eager to join the new system, some rural fire and law enforcement entities have been more hesitant. They’re now considering an interlocal agreement with Dodge County, where the county would agree to pay all the costs for new equipment up front and allow the rural districts to repay that over a five-year period.
The agreement also allows for the rural districts to fund the radios by levying an additional tax outside their normal limit, so the costs wouldn’t be taken from their already tight budgets.
While some entities are planning to move forward with the agreement, others aren’t sold yet, seeing the cost of new radios as too prohibitive, or the inability to choose a vendor other than Motorola as too restrictive.
Some, like Lonny Niewohner, chief of the Scribner Fire Department, say that they haven’t had issues with the current radio system and see little need to upgrade.
“As the fire chief, basically I’m responsible to all the tax paying citizens, and I find it hard to replace a working system that’s working good for us with another working system,” he said. “If this one ain’t broke, why do we need to change it or fix it?”
The radios are expected to cost $3,000 to $4,000 apiece, according to Dodge County Board Supervisor Greg Beam. If all entities were to sign onto the project, they would cost nearly $1.5 million cumulatively.
The Motorola project, while expensive, was considered a crucial update by dispatch and the Dodge County Sheriff’s department, who’d experienced declining communications quality since changes in FCC regulations in 2013 reduced the radio coverage areas.
Additionally, the city of Fremont had switched over to the ORION system in 2016 — joining entities in Douglas County, Washington County and others. Communication between the Dodge County Sheriff’s Office and the Fremont Police Department became clunkier as the two continued operating on different systems.
As the Dodge County Board of Supervisors was considering the project in July, however, Supervisor Lon Strand reported concerns from rural fire and law enforcement districts who were afraid they’d be forced into getting equipment that they didn’t want. Motorola ultimately agreed to allow those entities the opportunity to opt out by the end of the year.
“This system was never — in my mind, in my opinion — was never set up for the fire districts as much as it was set up for our sheriff’s department, who are in dire need of a new radio system for safety reasons,” Strand told the Tribune.
While officials say that sheriff’s deputies can see gaps in radio coverage and can face difficulty in communicating with each other and with dispatch, rural entities don’t necessarily have the same problems.
The Hooper fire district, for instance, mostly communicates within its department and with neighboring fire districts like Winslow, Uehling and Scribner, with whom it typically coordinates responses to incidents. According to Ron Meyer, Hooper Rural Fire District board member, Hooper typically communicates with those entities without issue.
“We’re kind of marooned on an island where our radio coverage is phenomenal as far as fire and rescue,” he said. “We’re against [upgrading] right now because of the cost factor.”
Shelly Holzerland, director of the city and county dispatch center, said that the county would still be able to support the entities using the old system. On their own calls, or on calls with other entities using the old system, they would see no difference.
But issues could arise when those entities attempt to communicate with others who have upgraded to the new ORION system — that can create some problems like delays in transmissions or additional static.
“Ideally, if everyone’s on the same radio systems, the communications are seamless,” she said. “When you start putting two different systems together, then you start running into some problems.”
However, according to Strand, some rural fire districts are also hesitant to upgrade because they want to maintain interconnectivity with entities in neighboring counties like Cuming or Colfax, who they may communicate with frequently and who have not upgraded their systems.
Still, the long-term view is that use of the ORION system will spread — it started in Douglas County and has since grown to include Washington and Sarpy and Dodge. As counties upgrade their systems, it could force neighboring counties to reassess their radio capabilities.
“The thought is, within 30 years, everybody’s on this system in northeast Nebraska,” Strand said. “When you go county-to-county, everybody does stuff a little different.”
In North Bend, for instance, fire chief Waylon Fischer is excited about the upgrade. Like the sheriff’s department, they were affected by the changes in FCC regulations.
“Our distance has been reduced, we have a hard time hearing people sometimes, it’s hit and miss,” he said. “Dispatch can’t hear us all the time, and it’s an old system and it’s just too far outdated.”
He said that signing onto the interlocal agreement to get the new equipment was “a no brainer.”
Rural law enforcement entities would be more willing to upgrade because they tend to be smaller — meaning fewer radios. The Dodge/Snyder Police Department, for instance, would only need to purchase two new radios for its staff, according to Chief Jeff Treu.
Others who are concerned about cost have started to explore different options. All of the different entities recently met in Scribner to hear a presentation from Kenwood Radios, who pitched a significantly cheaper price for radio equipment, according to Scribner fire chief Niewohner.
Niewohner also expressed concerns that no vendors other than Motorola were considered when the county approved the project last year.
Strand explained that Motorola was, at the time, the only manufacturer that provided the equipment that the county had requested. He noted that the Kenwood radios have not yet been tested and approved by the ORION system and could not be used on that system until they have.
Additionally, because the county’s agreement is with Motorola, entities choosing to purchase the Kenwood equipment would not be eligible to take on the financing that the county is offering through its interlocal agreement. That means they’d have to find funding within their current budgets.
The county, meanwhile, is still performing outreach with the districts and adjusting the interlocal agreement to make it “agreeable to all parties,” Strand said. County representatives will be present at a Feb. 25 meeting with all of the rural fire districts.