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Niagara’s new emergency radio system ready to launch

LOCKPORT – Six years after the notion was first raised and four years after the contracts were awarded, Niagara County’s new emergency radio network is scheduled to sign on the air June 30.

Officials say it will meet one of the stated goals, that of improving – or in some cases, providing for the first time – radio reception for first responders in isolated areas of the county, including the Niagara River Gorge.

However, the $10 million project won’t deliver on another goal, that of complete “interoperability” of radios among all police, fire and ambulance services.

The Niagara Falls Police Department won’t be hooked into the new system, as the city chose to keep using its current analog radio system, Police Superintendent E. Bryan DalPorto said.

Sheriff James R. Voutour said the new county system is digital, which is incompatible with an analog system. County patrol cars that use scanners to keep track of action in the Falls will no longer be able to do so, the sheriff said.

“We’ll be able to scan them on a separate radio,” Voutour said.

However, the county’s new radios have an analog setting, which would enable its officers to call a colleague in Niagara Falls. The traffic can’t go the other way, since the Falls radios have no digital capability.

DalPorto said for a Niagara Falls officer to initiate a call to someone in another agency, the officer would have to contact the city police dispatcher and ask for the message to be relayed.

“We are self-contained with our own radio frequency. We are working on the question of interoperability,” DalPorto said. “We’re working on our own self-contained digital system.”

DalPorto said that there is no cost estimate for that project yet, but he said, “It’s going to be a significant number.”

The superintendent said it’s just as well that Niagara Falls isn’t using one of the county’s new channels, since an audio traffic jam likely would result.

“The City of Niagara Falls handles almost as many police and fire calls as the rest of the county combined,” DalPorto said. “That’s an exorbitant amount of traffic … We can never be on the same channel.”

As part of the contract with Motorola Solutions, the cities of Lockport and Niagara Falls, like all other agencies in the county except for the State Police, were offered free Motorola digital portable radios for their officers.

Lockport accepted the offer but kept its own police dispatching office. Lockport fire dispatching was shifted to the Sheriff’s Office last year, a move North Tonawanda had made previously. The county also dispatches for all town and village police departments and all volunteer fire and ambulance companies.

Niagara Falls decided not to take the county’s offer of free portable radios for every officer. “The offer was there, but our systems just don’t match up,” DalPorto said. For now, the Falls will stick with its analog Motorola and Kenwood radios.

Lockport Police Chief Lawrence M. Eggert said the county gave his department two mobile radios on the county network, which were installed in the radio room in Police Headquarters.

“We’ll be using the county’s radio system to dispatch our calls,” Eggert said.

The notion of shifting Lockport police dispatching to the county has been discussed for years, but the city never has made the move. Asked if it will ever happen, Eggert said, “It’ll boil down to cost, quite frankly.”

The new Motorola portable radios are under warranty for three or four years, but the cost of their eventual replacement will fall on the city, not the county, Eggert said. The portables cost about $5,000 each, and the city will have to make sure whatever it buys is compatible with the county system. “You can’t get away with a generic radio anymore,” Eggert said.

Legislator David E. Godfrey, R-Wilson, said a few more encrypted channels than expected were added for police agency use, which added a small amount of extra cost.

The county decided to create an entirely new radio system in response to the Federal Communications Commission’s demand that police and fire voice and data systems take up less space on the broadcast spectrum, a concept called “narrowbanding.”

County Fire Coordinator Jonathan F. Schultz said folks who like to listen to the scanner will have to buy a digital scanner to hear most local police transmissions, although the county will continue using its traditional fire dispatching frequency.

Motorola promised radio coverage in 95 percent of the county, Voutour said, and that has been delivered. Testing over the past several weeks has shown that dead spots have largely been eliminated.

“The gorge was tested by several people, and we have real good coverage now. We never had coverage there before,” the sheriff said.

That was thanks to a controversial radio tower erected at the Upper Mountain Fire Company hall in Lewiston. The town sued the county, alleging that the town was given no notice and its zoning code was violated by the project near some homes. However, Lewiston’s suit, which demanded the demolition of the 215-foot tower, was dismissed May 6 by State Supreme Court Justice Mark A. Montour.

The Lewiston site was one of seven new radio towers that were erected as part of the project. The tower in northern Newfane, outside a former mattress factory where the county stores its voting machines, resolved the problem of poor radio coverage in the Barker area, Voutour said. The new tower at Terry’s Corners Fire Company in Royalton did the same for the Wolcottsville area. And a tower at the City of Lockport composting plant resolved radio reception issues in the Lowertown section of Lockport, tucked under the Niagara Escarpment.

Luca C.P. Quagliano, municipal training officer for the Lockport Fire Department, told the Fire Board June 8 that he had personally tested dozens of locations all over the city to make sure the new radios worked. He found very few problems, and those were mostly in basements of buildings, such as the boiler room of Lockport High School and, ironically, in the basement of City Hall.

That’s potentially important because the police department garage, booking area and holding cells are located in the basement.

Voutour said Motorola is working on a special antenna for the Lockport basement, but it’s unclear whether the city or county would have to pay for it. Another problem spot was the interior of the Fashion Outlets mall in the Town of Niagara, where the digital signal was defeated by the steel-and-concrete mall building. Voutour said he expects the mall to pay for the solution there.

“There’s not a radio system in the world that’s perfect,” the sheriff said. “People who are averse to this system will walk around until they find a dead spot and make a big deal out of it.”