Senate hearing outlines need for emergency system upgrades

Staff writer

A major concern for first responders is an inability to communicate with other departments responding to the same emergency, but a new radio system being piloted in Venango and surrounding counties could offer a solution to the problem.

The new system upgrades radio communications to allow all police and emergency radio signals to use the same state towers rather than county governments using separate radio towers.

Diane Stackhouse, the director of communications and information for the Pennsylvania State Police, testified on behalf of the need for the new system at a Senate Emergency Preparedness hearing Monday in Harrisburg.

“One key concern for any first responder is interoperability,” Stackhouse said in her testimony. “Lack of interoperability occurs when public safety personnel respond to the same emergency but cannot communicate with each other because they operate on incompatible radio systems,” she added.

Stackhouse explained that this is the current situation and that the only way to achieve interoperability is to move to a Project 25 (P25) open standard radio technology.

She said Project 25 is a set of standards created through joint efforts with the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials, the National Association of State Telecommunications Directors and the National Communications System.

Stackhouse estimated the state could see about $6 million a year in savings due to fewer tower sites and leases, less maintenance and lower utility costs.

Venango County Commissioner Albert “Chip” Abramovic also attended Monday’s Senate hearing.

“Venango County’s current system is aging and most of the components will be coming to end of life within the next five years,” Abramovic said in his testimony. “This means an upgrade is going to be necessary. This system shows promise in achieving this needed update.”

Venango County public safety director Tim Dunkle said he and deputy director Mark Seigworth are on a fact finding mission to gather as much information about the new system as possible to present to the commissioners.

“All the radio frequencies will go off of state towers, which should allow for better operability for all agencies involved,” Dunkle said.

Dunkle said it is still too early in the testing phase to determine feasibility but that in theory, the new system would facilitate better communication between agencies.

“I’m trying to get to see just how well the county would be covered by the state towers and if there’s going to be any areas lacking in coverage,” he said. “We’re still in the beginning phases of getting the bugs worked out.”