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By Jessie Burchette
Salisbury Post
Modernizing and eliminating dead spots in the county’s emergency radio system coverage could cost taxpayers $12 million or more over the next few years, the Rowan County Board of Commissioners heard recently at its annual retreat.
Rob Robinson, director of the county’s 911 emergency communications system, detailed the current operation, which uses 2,400 mobile and portable radios working off a main tower near Granite Quarry at Al’s Knob, a tower owned by the city of Salisbury.
As the telecommunications world goes digital, the county must switch from analog radios to digital units that cost $4,200 apiece.
As part of a deal with the federal government, Nextel-Sprint is paying for a portion of some changes. An effort to expand the company’s bandwidth and clear up interference will move emergency radio systems statewide to a different area on the 800 MHz communication bandwidth.
That started in 2005 and is scheduled to be completed this year. As part of its agreement with the government, Nextel will pay to replace 234 analog radios in Rowan. By paying the $600 difference per unit, the county will switch those to digital. Robinson estimated the savings to the county at $842,000.
The county will still need to buy 1,000 radios in the future at a total cost of around $4 million.
The next issue to hit the county will be the need for a whole new radio system. Robinson said Motorola has informed the county and the city of Salisbury that the current system will be obsolete by 2013.
Much of the cost for the resulting “digital migration” will be the responsibility of the city of Salisbury, which operates the Al’s Knob tower. However, the county will have to upgrade and replace consoles in its 911 system, an estimated $480,000 for eight consoles.
Explaining coverage issues, Robinson displayed maps showing dead spots around the county where law enforcement officers, firefighters and EMS staff can’t reach each other or the 911 system.
Robinson said coverage has slowly deteriorated since 1990, primarily because of all the cell phones and clutter in the airways.
To repair the problems, Robinson said the county needs at least two additional towers, one in the western end of the county on Young’s Mountain and one in the southeastern area near Pooletown.
The county is also in discussions with the city of Concord about possibly developing a third site near the Rowan, Cabarrus and Iredell county lines ó the Enochville-Atwell area.
He estimated the cost of the new towers at $8 million.
Robinson and Emergency Services Director Frank Thomason recommended commissioners set up a committee to deal with the upcoming issues and consider hiring a consultant to study the full radio needs and exact costs.
Commissioners suggested reducing the tower costs by locating on existing towers if space is available.
During the discussion, commissioners discovered that for several years the county charged the city of Salisbury $40,000 a year to dispatch the city’s fire departments, but dropped the charge since the county doesn’t charge other municipalities for dispatching.
A few minutes later, commissioners and some county staff got a surprise.
Asked by commissioners if the city charged the county for the use of the Al’s Knob tower, county officials initially said no. But Finance Director Leslie Heidrick quickly clarified the situation. She said the county pays Salisbury $14,000 a month to use the Al’s Knob tower.
Contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254 or jburchette@salisburypost.com.

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