Most people don’t think about 911 — until they need it.
That’s what Scott Ruf, director of emergency communications for Douglas County, says. But it’s his job to make sure the system works when people need it.
Now, he’s moving forward with a proposal to completely revamp the system that manages 911 calls as well as all communications between and within the public safety departments operated by the county and the cities within it. It’s a project that’s projected to cost $6.6 million and take up to 18 months to complete.
Ruf said the existing analog system was put in place 15 years ago and is now outdated. The new system, called a P25 800 megahertz simulcast system, will be digital and have greater capacity for a higher volume of incoming calls and cross-agency communication, Ruf said. He’ll present a proposal to the Douglas County Commission during its meeting at 4 p.m. today on the second floor of the Douglas County Courthouse, 1100 Mass.
Other improvements to the system are to include:
l Compatibility with state agencies’ systems. Ruf cited the example of the NCAA Basketball Tournament last spring, when more than 250 officers from outside groups assisted the city and county. Communication between them was difficult because different agencies use different system types and frequencies, but the upgrades will put Lawrence and Douglas County on a more widely used platform, making such tasks a matter of designating a channel for all agencies to tune to.
l Cost-saving through “spring-boarding” from the existing state network. Instead of building a network from scratch, the new system will build on an existing network put in place by the Kansas Department of Transportation. Douglas County entities will have control of their own network, though — it’s not state-operated — but some tower sites will be shared between county and state.
l The upgrades will make the system “more robust and stable,” which contributes to public safety across the county, Ruf said. It will also help improve the most visible aspect of emergency communications: response time.
l It won’t be encrypted, as Shawnee County’s new system is, but it will have “talk groups,” one of which can be encrypted. This is the case with the current system.
Ruf got approval to waive the bidding process and begin working with Motorola Solutions to build the new network in June. At the time, he said there was no reason to bid out the project because Motorola was the only company capable of finishing it. On Wednesday, he’ll ask for permission to go forward with contracts with the state, Western States Contract Alliance and Mid-America Regional Council to purchase the components for the new system.
He’ll also ask for money to upgrade the emergency communications center in the Law Enforcement Center at 11th and New Hampshire streets, where dispatchers communicate with fire, medical and police.
There’s a lot still up in the air in terms of implementation; you can’t close down the dispatch center and prevent emergency communication, so everything has to be done simultaneously with operating the existing system and center.
Still, Ruf said, the plan is to complete the upgrades in 12 to 18 months, with everything new coming online by no later than the first quarter of 2014.
Paying for it
Here’s where the challenge remains, Ruf said. Neither the county nor the city has plans to increase taxes, but Douglas County and Lawrence city commissioners disagree on some of the needs and, therefore, how much money to spend.
The county and city have a standing agreement to pay 34 percent and 66 percent, respectively, of the operating costs of emergency communications, which include the dispatch center. In this year’s budget negotiations, the county proposed hiring four new dispatchers but pulled out on that plan when the city didn’t match it in its budget. Ruf said that the department is understaffed and needs at least six to 10 new dispatchers.
Sarah Plinksy, assistant Douglas County administrator, said that the agreement for upgrades, instead of the usual 34/66 percent, was spread out to roughly 50-50 between the two entities. The county plans to pay for its half through issuing bonds and refinancing existing debt, Plinksy said.
The Lawrence city commission agreed to the 50-50 deal in August and will pay its half with roughly $3 million in debt and the rest in available cash funds, said city manager David Corliss.
Kansas University’s public safety branch will also contribute, but in what way and how much hasn’t been determined yet, Ruf said.