Dubuque E9-1-1 Center Seeks New Communication System
Faced with outdated radio equipment that must be replaced soon, emergency responders in Dubuque County say a recent veto by Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad will make it more difficult for local 9-1-1 dispatch centers to make necessary upgrades and meet federal standards.
The governor recently vetoed legislation that would have increased the amount of money that county agencies receive from a 9-1-1 telephone service surcharge. Local officials say the additional funding would have helped replace outdated radio equipment – an undertaking that recently cost another county millions of dollars.
Dubuque E9-1-1 Center officials recently put out a request for proposals for a comprehensive study of a joint emergency radio communication system.
The county’s 20-year-old radio system will not be supported after June 30, 2017, according to Tom Berger, chairman of the Dubuque County E9-1-1 Service Board.
Proposals are being sought to replace the system with one that meets national interoperability standards, allowing public safety agencies from different jurisdictions to communicate effectively with one another during emergencies.
Dubuque County’s current system was purchased in 1994. The technology dates back to the early 1980s.
“It’s just old technology now that will no longer be supported through maintenance and upgrades,” after 2017, said Berger, also Epworth’s fire chief. “It’s a system that has served us well. We have good coverage. It’s like Windows XP.”
Microsoft announced last year it would no longer support its long-running Windows XP operating system so that it can invest resources toward supporting more recent technologies.
“And that’s what we need to do,” Berger said. “If something were to go bad (with the current system after 2017), you’re pretty much dead in the water.”
Local officials hope to hire a consultant this fall to help find a new countywide emergency radio system and put together cost estimates.
The E9-1-1 Service Board recently replaced handheld portable and in-vehicle radios for each of the county’s public safety departments. Costs were covered by federal grants and a contribution from county property taxes.
The radios replaced devices that had been in service for more than 15 years and will be compatible with the new system, Sheriff Don Vrotsos said.
Dubuque is not the only county faced with this problem. Members of the Black Hawk County Emergency Management Commission voted last week to buy a new $8.7 million emergency radio system to replace the same equipment utilized by Dubuque County.
Black Hawk County officials chose a system that allows it to tie into similar systems in Linn, Johnson and Scott counties, Berger said. The dispatch center in Cedar Rapids could serve as a backup dispatch location if a disaster or catastrophic equipment failures were to knock out the center in Waterloo, he said.
“That’s our main focus – redundancy and interoperability,” Berger said. “The main thing is the reliability to talk to one another. That’s the number one focus. We have that now, and we can’t lose that.”
County officials hoped to pay for the new system through an increase in state funding that local dispatch centers receive through a E9-1-1 surcharge on telephone services. However, Branstad’s veto eliminated a bill that would have increased the amount of money that local boards receive from the surcharge from 46 to 58 percent.
Branstad, in his veto message, said the increase would have jeopardized the solvency of the state’s E9-1-1Emergency Communications Fund, which is needed to pay for a statewide interoperable radio system.
“I believe some increase may be appropriate in the future. However, the increase proposed in this bill is premature,” Branstad wrote, noting the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management is conducting a study on the topic. “(A)ny increase in the rate should only increase upon the completion of the study.”
In the meantime, counties such as Dubuque County are forced to place an increasing burden on property taxpayers to pay for the upgrades, County Supervisor Tom Hancock said.
“Here we are in a quandary,” Hancock said. “None of us wants to increase taxes. Folks are paying enough … and other programs may have to suffer. But the only revenue source we have outside of property taxes is the E9-1-1surcharge, but we aren’t getting enough” as residents switch from landlines to cellphones.
Hancock said it was not the intent and purpose of the surcharge to fund a statewide system.
“It’s about aiding the disposition of 9-1-1 service on the local level,” he said. “(Lawmakers) want to place the burden on local property taxes. Unless we can get the Legislature to increase the surcharge to locals, that is exactly what is going to happen. … We don’t have the same resources the state has.”