Project StoryComm aims to provide a much-needed upgrade to E-911 system

Robbie Sequeira Special to the Herald

The current Story County emergency radio communication system has been described as having the efficiency of “two cans on a string,” by Story County Supervisor Rick Sanders and the durability of “masking tape and baling wire,” by Story County Sheriff Paul Fitzgerald.

Those statements indicate that the Story County emergency radio system is in need of a forklift upgrade, or a massive overhaul, something that could happen under the proposed creation of a new communications system called Storycomm, which would provide that much-needed upgrade.

After the Story County Board of Supervisors and the Ames City Council approved motions to enter a 28E Agreement to purchase an interoperable communication system in recent weeks, with Iowa State University’s approval pending — those improvements could be on the way.

The upgrade seeks to improve the system’s LMR (Land Mobile Radio), service reception, and provide heightened emergency communications.

“For a while, our public safety communication has been running on borrowed time,” Fitzgerald said. “Our current radio system is outdated and inefficient.”

Established in 1989, the current Story County LMR equipment has not aged well.

When the StoryComm consulting firm Mission Critical Partners evaluated the equipment in September 2017, they concluded the current system was obsolete.

The system’s main issue is that the manufacturer for the system ceased production a few years ago, which has led to county departments scrambling to find spare parts.

“Each time a radio broke or sputtered out, we had to scour statewide for other departments that used the same system — and work with a series of quick fixes,” Fitzgerald said.

Another pressing issue is that the current radio apparatus is a commercial system, not a public safety system.

A public safety system of communication prevents extracurricular interference from other frequencies that could potentially stall or interrupt emergency calls to dispatchers.

That’s when Fitzgerald and the county’s E911 Board decided it was time for a change. Two years ago, the board decided to undergo a three-phase plan to make the upgrades.

The first phase involved consultations, as the E911 Board expected the upgrade to carry an expensive price tag. So they pitched their idea to the Story County Board of Supervisors, the city of Ames, and Iowa State University.

In unison they all agreed, it was time for a change.

All entities agreed to enter a 28E Agreement, and pending approval from the Secretary of State — the project’s consultant, Mission Critical, will negotiate with the two vendors, Raycom and Motorola.

“Story County is so lucky to have entities that don’t rely on individual competition and work together to ensure the safety of its residents,” Fitzgerald said.

The city of Ames, Story County, and ISU all have a public-safety answering point, or PSAPS.

All three PSAPS, and Dispatch Centers, have the same equipment allowing for redundancy and the sharing of work space should one center need to be evacuated. All also operate under one E911 board of directors.

While that has remained a key tool for all departments involved — the equipment being used is not. It’s why the three entities entered a 28E Agreement to split costs for the upgrades in thirds. The preliminary cost of the project has ranged between $9-$12 million dollars to complete.

“The people in this county need to know that they can reliably get in contact with our 911 system in time-sensitive emergencies,” said Supervisor Rick Sanders.

Barring approval of the 28E Agreement from the Secretary of State, the final phase of the StoryComm project is a selection of a system vendor.

The E911 Board will make a decision between either Raycom or Motorola as their system vendors, and while Fitzgerald said there aren’t drastic differences in the vendor’s services — their decision is based on three crucial factors.

“We want something that is within the combined budget, has excellent service, and has the equipment capable of evolving with the emerging technological advancements in the next 10-15 years,” said Fitzgerald.

A benefit to upgraded LMR’s is a potential shift in how first responders can react to emergency situations. As of now, the current radio systems aren’t developed enough to take advantage of Project FirstNet, a Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network which will be utilized with streaming data, NG9-1-1 (Next Generation), and other Broadband services, but is not prepared to carry voice at this time.

Project FirstNet allows law enforcement personnel, fire fighters, emergency medical service professionals, and other public safety entities to effectively communicate with each other across agencies and jurisdictions.

“We have to be proactive when it comes to how we respond to emergency situations, and provide the residents of Story County with most reliable service.” Fitzgerald said.