Thursday, June 19th, 2008
By William Kincaid
Mercer County emergency services to share new radio system
  For the first time ever, the Mercer County Sheriff's Department and the county's fire and local police departments, which rely on central dispatch for emergency call-outs, will have a unified radio system.
The state government's Multi-Agency Radio Communications System (MARCS) will provide Mercer County a secure, reliable and clear radio system, Mercer County Sheriff Jeff Grey said.
Seven local counties, including Mercer and Auglaize, were awarded a collective $18 million Homeland Security grant from FEMA to upgrade their emergency radio communication
The Mercer County equipment is paid for by $1.8 million of that grant, $364,000 from the Mercer County Commissioners and $31,469 from the Celina Police Department. The federal government requires local counties to contribute 20 percent match for the grant.
By law, each municipality and township is responsible for funding its police and fire departments, including their radio systems. But Grey said the commissioners and the sheriffs' departments are required to establish a reliable radio communication system that works throughout the county.
Paying for the system is not the county's responsibility but they're allowed to help if they have the money," Grey told a group of enforcement and emergency personnel at a meeting last week. "They've (commissioners) always come through for us," he said.
The new system should be up and ready for all agencies by October 2009 when the new Mercer County jail opens, Grey said.
Not only will MARCS unite local law enforcement and emergency personnel on a single radio system, but also provide communication to other state agencies throughout Ohio.
Each state agency with MARCS, whether a police outfit or state highway patrol, has a base station located in its dispatching room, Grey said. The dispatcher can either make calls to or receive calls from mobile MARCS radios inside emergency vehicles or portable MARCS radios assigned to personnel.
MARCS transmits through a series of radio towers built throughout Ohio by the state government. Locally, Mercer County will utilize existing towers in North Star and Van Wert. A new 450-foot tower will be built near Wright State University Lake Campus off state Route 703 near Dibble Road at the state's expense, Dick Miller, office manager of MARCS, said. Even if Mercer County chose not to be on MARCS, the state would still need to build the tower.
The tower could be completed as soon as this fall, Miller said.
A total of 400 radios, including mobile and portable devices, will be allocated to the sheriff and all police, fire and EMS departments.
"I really think we're taking care of everybody," Grey said at a recent meeting to discuss the new radios.
Each department can choose to activate their radios. Department must pay $20 a month for each radio operating on the MARCS towers. However, if a department only wishes to use its radios internally - communicating through the radios and not the towers - it must pay a one-time $50 fee for each radio.
The one-time $50 option, known as talk-around, would allow a fire department to communicate with its own personnel without having to pay the $20 monthly fee - as long as they don't use the MARCS tower.
But if a catastrophic emergency occurred, firefighters could immediately access the county radio system, using the MARCS towers, to call for backup.
But, all county departments must have at least one radio activated on the MARCS tower system, Grey said.
Grey said the county's current radio antenna on the McAfee Tower will be relocated to the new MARCS tower at Wright State once it's operational. The county will not pay for the new tower's construction and will not spend over $250 each month to rent the McAfee Tower.
Pages to notify firefighters of situations also will be transmitted through the MARCS tower.
At any emergency, an incident supervisor who calls the shots - usually a fire chief - would use a MARCS radio to remain in continual contact with dispatchers, Grey said.
Exclusive frequencies called talk groups can be programed on the sheriff department's base station. Radio lines can be established just for patrol cars, detective cars, firefighters and EMS crews. A private, encrypted administration line is also possible.
Although MARCS radios will be distributed based on department size and need - a decision Grey must make - every law enforcement and emergency vehicle is to be equipped with a mobile radio. All full-time police officers will be assigned a portable radio as well.
The radios come with a three-year warranty.
"So you will have no radio fees - other than service costs - for three years," Grey told personnel from throughout the county at a special meeting last week.
State Representative Jim Zehringer, R-Fort Recovery, and other politicians are seeking funding options to either reduce or eliminate the service fees, according to Grey.
He said the state legislators could eventually mandate all county dispatch systems to join MARCS.
"For us, this is the perfect time to jump in because we have the grant," Grey told emergency, fire and police personnel from throughout the county.
But regardless of equipment improvements, Grey said all personnel - he includes himself - must become better radio communicators.
"We've got to work as a group on how we're going to talk on the radio," he said.
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