Formative plans were laid out for one of Dawson County’s highest-priority SPLOST projects during the last Board of Commissioners work session.
During the June 16 meeting, commissioners took a look at potential avenues for the radio system upgrade project.
Voters approved Dawson County’s SPLOST VII on March 16, 2021, which included a planned $5.5 million for the EOC/E911 center and $3 millon for the radio system upgrade, for a combined $8.5 million budget. These discussions followed almost a year of special purpose local option sales tax collections.
As planning progresses, each initiative is expected to come back before the BOC at a future date for votes to release requests for price (RFPs). These projects must be funded in full before any other initiative in the SPLOST project list.
The county’s radio system was last upgraded about ten years ago. Its current problems include lacking coverage throughout the county when portable radios are used and inside buildings, heavy static, radios not transmitting to consoles inside the dispatch center and an inability to communicate with Hall, Forsyth, Cherokee and Cobb Counties.
“I sincerely appreciate the Commissioners moving this radio project forward,” said Dawson County Sheriff Jeff Johnson. “This has been a desperately needed system that will greatly enhance our communications, resulting in greater levels of service and security for our community and public safety professionals.”
During the June 16 meeting, DCSO Maj. Greg Rowan gave a joint presentation about the proposed radio system upgrades with Brian Barber of Federal Engineering, a consulting national public safety communications firm.
Barber said the first option was to basically stay in the same frequency band but upgrade it to Project 25 (P25), the standard for public safety communications.
It would use Dawson County’s three existing sites while also adding a new site on Monument Road in Pickens County and using Forsyth County’s VHF P25 site. It would also entail new subscribers, base stations and related equipment while leaving in a VHF (very high frequency) channel for interoperability and fire paging. The existing Forsyth site would improve mobile or mounted radio coverage as well as portable coverage slightly. However, this option doesn’t help with portable in-building coverage, said Barber.
The sites would also be connected in a ring microwave network or configuration, so if one link was to go down, the signal traffic would go in the opposite direction so communication wouldn’t be lost with the whole radio system.
Barber elaborated that VHF is “a very difficult band” to deploy new systems in because of the challenge with finding new frequencies, as was the case with Dawson County’s 2012 radio upgrade. Dawson’s current VHF is already capacity-constrained from limited channels, so a transition would be made more difficult.
It’s also prone to environmental noise from things like lighting and building thermostats, which ends up impeding radio signals getting to an end user.
“We don’t expect that problem to get better with VHF. We expect it to get worse,” Barber said. “Your coverage in VHF might be adequate today, but I can't guarantee to you that it’ll be adequate 10 years from now.”
Barber called the second option or alternative similar to alternative one in terms of leveraging the existing Dawson sites, but it involves moving to the 700-800mhz P25 band and adding two more Forsyth sites to the five-prong configuration.
It’s easier to get more channels in the latter band, with a dedicated bank of channels for public safety entities, and there’s not the same type of interference issues as VHF. Environmental noise isn’t as much of an issue.
While it would take a few more sites to provide the same level of mobile coverage in option two as in the first one, the in-building coverage with the 700-800mhz system would be much better, Barber said.
The more new infrastructure needed will initially make the radio system transition more difficult, but Federal Engineering has managed that move for agencies across the country, he added.
Barber used a diagram map to show the differences in types of coverage between the two upgrade options. With the diagram, blue stood for mobile radio coverage, while yellow stood for portable outside coverage and green stood for portable in-building.
“You can see the difference in-building coverage between the two alternatives is pretty drastic or significant,” Barber said. “The 700-800[mhz] option with the site configuration that we did in the second design would provide much more in-building coverage and portable outdoor coverage than alternative one would in VHF.”
Dawson County could implement either option as a standalone system which it owns and operates or look at sharing opportunities where an adjacent county, like Cobb or Hall, would already have a control network or system to connect to and reduce cost.
The disadvantage there is that Dawson would be locked into the same upgrade plan and would have to upgrade at the same time as network partners, so funding would have to be in place for that, Barber said.
Three of the neighboring counties are currently on VHF and three are on the 700-800mhz option, and all of the P25-adjacent systems are in that latter band range.
In terms of numbers, the county would be looking at a capital cost of either $8-11 million for the first option versus $10-13.5 million for the second one. Projected costs were based on using radio-specific rather than cell towers.
Barber pointed out that the second option doesn’t have some of the VHF alternative’s risks, and there’d be more opportunities for cost-sharing with the 700-800mhz option.
If Dawson joined with Cobb’s network control center, the cost savings to expand it rather than buying a new one could be as much as $500,000. Similarly, since Forsyth is in the beginning stages of building a radio site on Old Federal Highway, Dawson could come in and partner with them to help build that site and reduce some of the costs and development time associated with that site build.
He did remind the county commissioners that they’d have to be on the same upgrade cycle, which tends to be in the two-four year range, and design plans would similarly have to be done in partnership with that other entity.
Intergovernmental agreements would also have to be in place for details about land ownership, funding and management.
Dawson County could potentially come to own the Pickens tower since it’d be at a new site. Partnering with Forsyth could entail co-ownership or a sharing agreement if that county builds it and Dawson wants to work out a sharing agreement to hop onto that site. There’s possibly enough room for Dawson to be added on at Forsyth’s Mollyview site, but a further analysis would have to be done to confirm that.
Estimated support costs would be either $1.9 million vs. $2.4 million respectively for each option, both of which would include recurring upgrades to keep a system current. A three-year warranty would cover the chosen system’s deployment stage before those life cycle support plan costs, which are usually spread out over multiple years, kick in.
“With the growth you guys are having here, I’d expect you guys are going to have to expand the system at some point. So you need to be on that upgrade path in order to do that,” Barber said.
When Gaines asked about a potential life span for the proposed system, Barber explained that P25 is a user-driven standard that continues to evolve as capabilities are added.
“I don’t think you’re investing in technology that has a horizon. It continues to evolve as it has for the last 25-plus years,” Barber said.
The engineer also confirmed, per District 4 Commissioner Emory Dooley’s question, that the projected cost numbers are based off of Dawson building their own tower at the Forsyth Old Federal Highway site and doing things like structural analyses at the Mollyview location.
Barber said he could not guarantee firmer numbers until moving forward with an option, considering increased inflation in the market and higher costs in terms of steel and labor prices.
Once the county decides which direction to go in, Federal Engineering will build the functional specifications. Barber suggested building a standalone option as a primary with another proposal for cost and network sharing to better anticipate both options’ costs and have more information on which to base their final decision.
He doubted that prices for a radio project would decrease if inflation came under more control.
“In the 36 years I've been doing this, I've never seen the costs of radio systems go down,” he said. “It would not be a fair expectation and that if you were to wait…that it’d be less money later.”