Dane Co. budget to include millions for new emergency radio towers

Parisi wants to spend $4.5M for four emergency towers
Dane Co. budget to include millions for new emergency radio towers

Dane County Executive Joe Parisi will propose spending $4.5 million toward building four emergency radio towers in Mt. Horeb, Stoughton, Deerfield and Deforest when he rolls out his 2015 budget on Wednesday.

The move is aimed to address anticipated operational problems with the county’s already delayed new emergency radio system called DaneCom.

“More towers and putting more equipment on those towers to enhance coverage will make sure that when responders (use them), their radios work,” Dane County Executive Chief of Staff Josh Wescott said.

DaneCom’s original $30 million proposal included additional towers and stronger signals, which can penetrate hard-to-reach buildings and landscapes better, no matter where an emergency might take first responders.

But at former Dane County Chief Executive Kathleen Falk’s direction, the county board committee cut DaneCom’s budget by $12 million after 61 Dane County cities, villages and towns did not like the idea of having to share DaneCom’s cost. The eventual $18 million plan included fewer towers and a weaker signal.  Despite that, the county maintained DaneCom would still operate using standards similar to those first responders use across the country. 

As DaneCom moved forward, and three associations in communities across Dane County conducted systematic testing, officers’, firefighters’ and EMS responders’ concerns grew,  especially about poor radio signal reception and transmission.

“These conditions would not only hamper our ability to effectively respond to emergency situations, but would also put emergency responders at great risk,” said McFarland Police Chief Craig Sherven, who serves as president of the Dane County Chiefs of Police Association.  

However, Wescott said the new proposal would bring the total tower number to 12, and include some of the strongest radio signals in the state.

“Those previous agreements on the cost sharing of phase one, they don’t change under this model.  What changes is the county saying ‘Let’s step up. Let’s solve this. Let’s address this. Let’s move forward and get DaneCom online.’ The second phase is one that’s solely funded by the county.”

The sudden change is being well received by Sherven, saying the police association is pleased with Parisi’s planned upgrade.

 He’s not the only first-responder community member adding his support.

“The county executive and his staff get a tremendous amount of credit for having the courage and leadership to listen to what the concerns were and propose something that’s very substantive to try to address them,” said Dane County Fire Association President Randy Pickering.

There were numerous radio concerns voiced all summer. Back on Aug. 8,  Blue Mounds Police Chief Andy Rose’s radio failed as he chased a juvenile with a knife.  An audio recording of that call plays out more than 30 seconds of silence before a dispatcher could hear Rose say he was holding the suspect at gunpoint.

An investigation eventually revealed a state emergency radio signal was causing officer radio failures because the state signal was interfering with Dane County’s old “legacy” communication system. Because the DaneCom system is in the middle of a six-month delay, Dane County first responders currently continue using the legacy system.  Since taking the problematic state signal offline,  Pickering said none of his members have reported problems.

“We’re glad that fixed that problem our law enforcement partners were having. But, no, it didn’t do anything to the paging issues,” Pickering said. “But quite honestly they’re all over it. And they’re trying to get it fixed.”

Wescott said with the county executives new commitment to installing more towers, their explicit goal is making the system work in more places.

“The issue is one and the same. The goal is improving coverage for pagers,” Wescott said. “Coverage for radios. Just like cellphones the more towers you have, the more places your cellphone works.  We’re going to put up more towers.”

Because the DaneCom system is in the middle of a six-month delay, Dane County first responders currently continue using the legacy system. 

Parisi will detail his plan with county emergency workers at a private meeting Wednesday.