One Radio Vendor Stands Out At Meeting

Rey Freeman, radio consultant for the Mahaska County Supervisors, delivers his opinion on which vendor would best serve the needs of first responders in the county.

Rey Freeman, radio consultant for the Mahaska County Supervisors, delivers his opinion on which vendor would best serve the needs of first responders in the county.

Oskaloosa, Iowa – The Mahaska County Board of Supervisors met in a special session on Tuesday night where they heard their consultants recommendation for a new emergency radio vendor.

A final decision will be made on December 17th on “which route to go and move forward,” said Mahaska County Supervisor Mark Groenendyk. “We’re looking for public feedback in the next 13 days.”

Racom Corporation got the nod from Rey Freeman and Mike Mazzitello, consultants the Mahaska County Board of Supervisors hired to review proposed radio systems from both Racom and Motorola.

Both vendors proposed a three-tower system, each giving the industry standard coverage of 95% reliability over 95% of the geographic area within the county, and inside structures within the specified areas of the county. The specs call for 8 dB in-building county-wide, and 15 dB within the cities and towns with populations higher than 500.

Those three towers will be located near Eddyville, inside Oskaloosa, and near New Sharon.

The Oskaloosa tower would be 350 foot tall, with a 250-foot tower near Eddyville, and a 275-foot tower near New Sharon. The county is currently operating off of a 180-foot tower near William Penn University.

The cost difference between the two bids for the system is $868,259.00 in favor of Racom. When looking at the maintenance difference, Racom is also cheapest, coming in $634,685.00 less than Motorola’s bid. When combined, Racom is $1,502.944.00 cheaper.

If the county uses Racom, that will put Mahaska County on the SARA system but will have connectivity with the ISICS system, which is run by Motorola, and contracted by the State of Iowa.

Coverage using portable radios was the primary concern in designing the new system. “It’s not really about mobile coverage, it’s about portable coverage,” said Freeman. “It’s easier for a portable to hear the system than it is to talk back into the system.”

“Getting talk in coverage from a portable is the challenge,” added Freeman.

Also included in the new system is increased coverage for VHF paging. The paging system alerts first responders that their help is needed. The current paging system has suffered alongside the current radio system, making it difficult for all first responders to be contacted in a time of need.

Portable coverage would provide a first responder the same level of communication with other first responders and the communications center as they would get on a more powerful radio inside their vehicle, without having to use a repeater.

Racom was the original bidder for the new system when they filed that with Mahaska County Emergency Management Commission [EMC]. Motorola submitted a note saying they looked forward to working with the county.

The Mahaska County Supervisors said they believed that a single bid wasn’t enough, and took the project from Emergency Management with the threat of legal action if the EMC was to have moved forward with Racom’s bid.

The Supervisors then took the criteria set out by the EMC for a radio system and used that for the basis of their request.

Motorola then said they would provide a bid, and Racom did as well for a second time, ultimately coming in 1.5 million dollars cheaper than Motorola.

The item that will draw the most upcoming discussion is the number of radios needed by the various departments in the county, and how those radios will be paid for.

The supervisors say they are willing to cover the initial purchase of the radios which facilitates a deep discount when purchased at the same time as the main radio system.

Individual radios can cost upwards of $6,000.00, and the concern is that many departments within the county won’t be able to afford the cost.

The number of radios county-wide would be just over 370 for all departments, which includes law enforcement, fire, and EMS.

“The first point though is the county board is willing to provide the capital for the initial purchase of all radios at the time of contract signing so that they can be purchased when the contract is signed for the radio system,” said Freeman. “The board is agreeable to fund up to some percent of that radio purchase potentially. It’s blank for a reason, it needs to be discussed.”

“Agencies will be required to repay the balance of radio costs depending upon what the numbers work out to be here,” added Freeman. “One of the questions that was asked, should 911 assist with funding the radio purchases? And the agencies need to be responsible for the ongoing maintenance of these radios.”

The county would then be responsible for the construction of the three towers.

“We are recommending that Mahaska County move forward with Racom on this system,” said Freeman during Tuesday’s meeting. “Obviously, Racom is a local vendor with good history serving the county.”

The Mahaska County Supervisors will be considering a bond proposal to pay for the project, with an amount not to exceed 5 million dollars. The total cost of the project is estimated to be 4.9 million.

A member of the audience asked Freeman what the difference between the coverage the current radio system has now, and the proposed radio system.

“Night and day,” responded Freeman. “With the new system, in our experience, you’ll be hard pressed to find a place that it doesn’t work. Today, it’s my understanding, you don’t have to try very hard to find a place that it doesn’t work.”

Freeman is recommending that the contract be awarded to Racom for the new Mahaska County radio system.

“We’ll make the motion at the next board meeting which direction we’re going, based on Mr. Freeman’s recommendation. I would assume we are going with Racom, but that decision is not made tonight,” said Mahaska County Supervisor Willie Van Weelden.

“I think it gives a chance for the public to speak,” said Groenendyk. “We’re talking up to 5 million dollars. I think the public has a right to speak.”

“Most counties have done anywhere from supplying 100% of the radios to zero. Some counties, the 911 board, have purchased them all. The counties that supplied 100%, they came back to me and said that’s not the wisest decision, cause nobody else has any skin in the game,” said Groenendyk.

The discussion of how then to pay what amount for the radios will become difficult, because agencies like the Oskaloosa Fire Department, serve a vast rural area. 95% of their coverage area is rural. New Sharon Fire is similar, with only 2% of their coverage area being the city of New Sharon itself. Each agency does receive some money from the townships to help offset the cost of protection.

“It’s not just a city problem,” said Oskaloosa Fire Chief Mark Neff. “We’re all taxpayers of Mahaska County. So we’re all going to be paying toward this system.”

A public hearing is set for December 17th, 2018 at 9:10 am in the 3rd-floor conference room of the Mahaska County Courthouse.

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