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Allegheny County, municipal agencies get new FCC deadline for radio upgrades

| Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013, 4:56 a.m.
Mobile Radio Service Inc. technician Jim Bricker talks with a West Mifflin dispatcher while reprogramming radios for narrowband operation. West Mifflin's dispatch center takes police and fire calls in the borough. Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Port Vue police Chief Bryan Myers uses one of the department's newer radios, which are ultra high frequency and narrowbanded. Cindy Shegan Keeley|Daily News
Port Vue police purchased ultra high frequency radio equipment last year. Cindy Shegan Keeley|Daily News
Port Vue police Chief Bryan Myers uses one of the department's newer radios, which are ultra high frequency and narrowbanded. Cindy Shegan Keeley|Daily News

The Federal Communications Commission mandated that all of its licensees switch to narrowbanding by Jan. 1, but Allegheny County and some municipal police agencies still are working on the changeover.

“The migration from wideband to narrowband is so that more frequencies can be issued by the FCC,” county Chief of Emergency Services Alvin Henderson Jr. said. “Any time we need a frequency, we make an application and pay the associated license fees to the FCC.”

He said 75-80 percent of the county's radio infrastructure has been narrowbanded. The rest have until June 30 under an FCC extension.

“We had to put together an operational plan that demonstrated we are in the process of doing this,” Henderson said, explaining that extenuating circumstances prevented a complete switch in time for the mandated deadline.

An FCC spokeswoman said commission staff are reviewing and processing a large number of applications that were filed around Jan. 1.

Narrowbanding requires license holders to operate on channels of 12.5 kHz or less. That means having equipment capable of transmitting at least one voice channel per 12.5 kHz, or that can support a minimum data rate of 4,800 bits per second per 6.25 kHz.

Henderson cited the unavailability of enough equipment and technicians as reasons for the delay in conversion. He said coordination with tower site owners and tower climbers has taken time.

He said some of the county's equipment was reprogrammed for narrowband operation.

Of the Mon Valley municipalities that have their own dispatching service, North Versailles and West Mifflin made the switch last year.

West Mifflin Mayor Chris Kelly said the borough's topography is not conducive to narrowband broadcasting.

“We need to tweak (the equipment) a little more and put up additional satellites so we can all communicate,” he said.

Munhall has not made the change.

“We have to get two new satellites up and running before we can do it,” police Chief Pat Campbell said.

Municipalities must update radios that are not capable of narrowbanding. Whitaker and West Homestead purchased equipment for an ultra high frequency conversion and are waiting for delivery.

Henderson said county 911 strongly recommends that police, fire and EMS agencies on its channels update to the ultra high frequency platform of 450-512 megahertz.

“We're trying to get to a common UHF platform board,” he said.

Henderson said various agencies throughout the county are on different UHF and very high frequency megahertz ranges.

“With the events of Sept. 11 and with the onset of the national incident management system, interoperable communications was an area to be focused on nationwide,” he said.

Henderson said that, because so many county agencies were on the UHF platform of 450-512, it made sense to require other agencies to make the change so that multiple agencies can communicate clearly in a major emergency.

“We do have equipment that takes different bandwidths and ties them electronically together, but it's not the cleanest of communication,” he said, noting the area's hills and valleys make that process challenging.

West Mifflin and Munhall police are on VHF and do not plan to switch to UHF anytime soon.

“We're staying VHF unless my council tells me we're switching to Allegheny County 911,” Campbell said.

Homestead, West Homestead and Whitaker police use Munhall's radio equipment even though the three are dispatched through county 911.

“Munhall granted Allegheny County 911 the ability to dispatch on their channel,” Henderson said.

Duquesne police have their own channel.

Henderson said Allegheny County 911 is working with Duquesne, Homestead, West Homestead and Whitaker to upgrade to a UHF platform.

“We want to maintain them on a county-owned UHF channel,” he said. “We'll maintain that channel and it won't cost the municipalities.”

West Homestead and Whitaker ordered radios to make the UHF change, so that they can be narrowbanded on a county UHF channel or stay with Munhall's frequency.

Homestead police Chief Jeff DeSimone said the department's VHF radios are compatible with narrowbanding, but they have to wait for Munhall to update its equipment.

He said the department plans to move to UHF when it has funds to purchase new radios for better communication with the county.

“It's an issue of public safety,” DeSimone said. “It's an issue of officer safety. If that's the way we're going, it is the way we have to go.”

He said he budgeted $30,000 to purchase the equipment htis year, but the final budget did not include the funds.

Campbell said Munhall purchased UHF radios for all police vehicles in addition to the VHF radios so that its officers can communicate with neighboring boroughs when they switch to that frequency. Kelly said West Mifflin police have the ability to cross-patch.

Duquesne police Chief Richard Adams said police radios and equipment are narrowbanded.

“We're still on VHF,” he said. “We bought brand new radios about six months before the mandate came out.”

Adams said he doesn't see the department changing to UHF in the immediate future.

North Versailles police have been on UHF for about 30 years.

“We were one of the first ones to go to it many years ago,” Chief Vincent DiCenzo Jr. said.

Henderson said most agencies with county 911 have migrated to the UHF platform.

“We've already seen the benefits of enhanced communication in units going to that,” he said.

Fire organizations and EMS agencies were mandated by the FCC to narrowband, and the county requested that they move to UHF.

Stacy Lee is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-664-9161, ext. 1970, or

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