Hilliard Northwest News

Hilliard police want upgrade to digital radio system

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Hilliard police are ready to go digital.

In furthering their cooperative relationship with the Dublin Division of Police, Hilliard police officials want the city to join the Central Ohio Interoperability Radio System, or COIRS.

Hilliard would be the first new member since COIRS was founded in 2008 by the Dublin and Worthington police departments and Delaware County. COIRS became operational in 2009.

The move would provide Hilliard police, still using analog radios, with digital technology for cruisers and handheld radios, as well as providing virtually uninterrupted digital service anywhere officers would respond.

Hilliard would be required to invest $2 million to join a regional council of governments, which owns and operates COIRS. In order to receive a one-time state grant, the founding agencies were required to establish the council.

Police Chief Doug Francis and Jay Somerville, Dublin's director of technical services, explained COIRS in detail at the Dec. 9 meeting of Public Safety and Legal Affairs Committee.

"This will be a robust and powerful system," Francis said.

Francis asked City Council to act quickly because Hilliard must sign by Jan. 31.

"We plan to start work in June and go live by October," Somerville said.

Hilliard City Council members appeared amenable to the proposal, but had some questions.

"I don't doubt this is the best option," said Councilman Al Iosue, but he questioned the urgency and why it was not presented sooner.

The legislation currently is scheduled for a first reading Dec. 16, a second reading Jan. 13 and a third reading Jan. 27. City Council would have to approve it as emergency legislation so it would be effectively immediately Jan. 27.

City Council Vice President Kelly McGivern asked if Dublin would reduce the fee it charges Hilliard for fire and EMS dispatching because Dublin would benefit from the new tower Hilliard would construct. Dublin will charge Hilliard $670,739 for dispatching in 2014.

Francis said dispatching "is a different animal" and mutually exclusive from COIRS.

Norwich Township is expected to contribute to the buy-in cost, Francis said, though how it will be accomplished is yet to be determined. He said Norwich Township's contribution would go toward construction of a digital radio tower in Hilliard.

It is possible, Mayor Don Schonhardt said, that in lieu of cash, Hilliard could broker a deal with Norwich Township for a reduction in payments the city makes to the township as part of a lease agreement for the Joint Safety Services Building built by the township.

As Hilliard continues to expand, particularly to the west, Francis said, radio signals inside buildings deteriorate.

Hilliard police pay Columbus an annual fee of $10,000 to use its analog radio tower. The closest tower to Hilliard is at the Columbus police substation at Griggs Reservoir.

"When we get out west, we lose signals, particularly in buildings (such as Bradley High School)," Francis said.

Hilliard's contract with Columbus for tower access expires Dec. 31, but can be renewed quarterly rather than annually.

Francis said it is believed, but is not a certainty, that Columbus will upgrade from analog to digital towers next year, but he does not anticipate Columbus constructing any towers closer to Hilliard.

A move by Columbus from analog to digital would be problematic for Hilliard, Francis said, not only because of the anticipated user-fee increase, but also because the "footprint" of Hilliard's service area would shrink.

With an analog signal, Francis explained, the signal becomes weaker in relation to distance, but can at times still be understood from a great distance.

But a digital signal, upon reaching its limit, simply drops -- "like going off a cliff," Francis said.

The city began planning to upgrade its radio service in 2011, Francis said, placing funds in the capital-improvement projects budget. The project was pushed back the past two years, but when Hilliard police turned to the Dublin Division of Police for fire suppression and EMS dispatching earlier this year, the need for Hilliard to join the digital ranks became paramount.

"There are some incompatibility issues with Hilliard remaining on an analog system," Francis said, including the inability to interface with the technology of the Dublin Division of Police.

Such technology includes the ability of Dublin dispatchers to track the location of officers with "digital ID" and a "console override" feature that allows dispatchers to instantly control all radio frequencies, which would not apply to an analog signal.

Francis said Hilliard could build its own tower or join the Ohio MARCS system. The former is cost-prohibitive; the latter still would render Hilliard a client of another provider.

As a member of the regional council of governments, Hilliard would be one of four voting members concerning the operation of COIRS, said Francis, who was a Worthington police lieutenant when COIRS was founded.

Of the $2 million Hilliard would be required to invest to join COIRS, $200,000 constitutes a membership fee. The other $1.8 million would be for the construction of a tower at Roger A. Reynolds Municipal Park, 3800 Veterans Memorial Drive.

Hilliard would provide the land, but both the land and the tower would be the property of COIRS whether or not Hilliard remained a member.

Apart from joining COIRS, Hilliard also would invest $400,000 for a digital upgrade of the department's in-car and handheld radios.

Francis estimated it would cost about $85,000 annually for maintenance and upgrades of COIRS, a cost shared among the members. After the initial buy-in, only the shared maintenance cost is required to maintain membership, he said.

He said Hilliard would save about $700,000 by joining COIRS now rather than later because upgrades to the group's three towers would occur simultaneously with the construction of a fourth tower.

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