By Maryann Mook
On Aug. 16, 2016, Erie County announced a contract was awarded to EF Johnson as the manufacturer for a new radio system that would include the infrastructure, subscriber units and dispatch console system for the county.
EF Johnson was the only vendor to meet the country’s technical specification as defined by the request for proposal (RFP), according to a news release from the Erie County Department of Public Safety.
At a cost of about $26 million, the Next Generation Public Safety Radio System is the second largest capital investment in public safety for the protection of the county’s first responders, the citizens and visitors of Erie County.
The goal of the project was to migrate the existing county radio system(s) and users to a common platform to provide the most technologically advanced communications system that meets the needs of Erie County in the most cost-effective way and provides for interoperability among all users of the system.
Prior to the transition of first responders to the new radio system, the following took place:
• First responders, in conjunction with Erie County Dispatch, conducted field coverage testing of more than 2,400 points of interest;
• EF Johnson Engineers, MCM Consulting Group Inc. and Erie County Radio Division conducted validation coverage testing. The preliminary report provided by EF Johnson indicated greater than 98 percent outdoor coverage across Erie County.
• The Erie County Department of Public Safety launched the county’s long-awaited Next Generation Public Safety Radio System during the week of Sept. 23, 2019; the final phase was completed during the week of Oct. 7, 2019.
John Grappy, Erie County director of public safety, said, overall, the project is successful; however, the launch of the system and implementation of the final phase does not mean the system is complete, or that Erie County is signing off on the project. There are post-launch issues, and the county is working with EF Johnson to solve those issues, which EF Johnson is focusing on.
“EF Johnson is ultimately responsible and will be held to the contractual obligations to ensure our coverage requirements have been met at no additional costs to the taxpayers of Erie County,” Grappy said.
Since the transition, Erie County officials have been working closely with first responders to identify areas of concern related to the lack of coverage in specific geographical locations across the county. Erie County requested an official response and timeline from EF Johnson on how long the company intends to resolve the coverage concerns.
Here are five factors impacting the perceived call quality/coverage — with four county users reporting issues with coverage — along with some comments and proposed methods for coverage enhancements:
1. The first issue (factor) is lower than optimal effective radiated power (ERP) at many radio frequency (RF) sites.
“The FCC Licensing had a direct negative impact on the allowable ‘effective radiated power’ (ERP), resulting in lower transmit power (wattage) impacting the coverage area at many tower site locations throughout Erie County. Because of line A, Canadian approval is required to avoid potential interference issues across Lake Erie. Once approved, the ERPs were lower than anticipated, resulting in lower transmit power impacting coverage areas,” Grappy said.
EF Johnson is working with the county to define areas where coverage can be improved and are proactively working with RF design engineers and independent consultants to determine all possible methods to enhance coverage in the below target areas:
2. Erie 91, which is Albion – The site was using a directional TX antenna, pointing north, impacting the southern border south of Erie 91. EF Johnson has replaced the deployed directional antenna with an omni-directional antenna to assist in providing increased RF energy to the south of the site along the Erie County border.
Albion Volunteer Fire Department President Rick Huston said the problem appears to be solved.
“We haven’t had any major issues, not that anybody has brought up as far as coverage,” Huston said.
3. Edinboro University and state Route 99 – Edinboro is located in a recessed terrain pattern and Route 99 lies between two ridgelines, both preventing full RF energy saturation.
Edinboro Volunteer Fire Chief Patrick Davis said the coverage has been “spotty” at times. Although coverage has been improved, it hasn’t been at the rate of complete satisfaction, and that is why Edinboro VFD wanted to bring up its concerns.
“Our biggest concern is they continue to move forward before signing off on the system,” Davis said. “It’s a life safety issue for all of our first responders.
“I think once we get through everything in a couple of years, we won’t remember these issues, but staying vigilant is important.”
EF Johnson is planning to deploy a repeater at the water tower at Sherrod Hill and Cheston Street or at Baron-Forness Library on the EU campus. EF Johnson will determine which site; and, based on a final design, will order equipment and provide delivery in installation.
4. Millcreek area – This area has RF coverage provided by two simulcast cell systems, and one is specifically intended to address calls in and out of the Millcreek area. It has been determined that some radios have been affiliating with the one cell system while physically located with the other cell’s operational area, causing poor call quality.
John Durlin, Erie County 911 coordinator, said the solution for the Millcreek area is software-based within the radios.
“The software will be updated to function correctly to improve performance of the mobile and portable radios,” Durlin said.
5. Northeastern Erie County – North and East of Mercyhurst University – The ridge northeast of the Mercyhurst site is shadowing the northeast area from full RF saturation and talk back to the system; and Erie 93 (state Route 89, south of Interstate 90), state site has been hindered by direct interference from the state’s system TX antenna at Erie 93 (which was installed after the county system),
North East Fire Departments Chief Dave Meehl said there were issues since day one, when the system went live. If first responders were east of North East Borough, the radios were out of range, he said
“We had no communication with the county,” Meehl said. “We have businesses out there and everything else.”
Meehl said the situation made first responders nervous.
“We felt we’re not getting the service we were promised,” Meehl said. “Our biggest fear is someone getting hurt or killed and we can’t do anything.”
EF Johnson will place equipment on an existing tower and provide coverage in the eastern area of Erie County in North East Township and the western portion of Chautauqua County, N.Y. Grappy said the tower is located on state Route 5, just 2 miles into New York state, owned by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol. But that will take time; therefore, there is a temporary solution.
The temporary solution is a regional asset, which is a 70-foot mobile communications tower; EF Johnson is going to install equipment, Grappy said. That tower will be located in an area of North East Township to provide coverage in that geographical area until the permanent equipment is installed.
The tower on Route 89, south of I-90 (Erie 93), is where, post go-live, another vendor installed another antenna on that tower at the same height.
“The antennas are conflicting (or “swamping”) each other, affecting the RF signals,” Grappy said.
EF Johnson provided an in-building Coverage Acceptance Test Plan (CATP) that defines the methods and procedures that will be used to test in-building coverage in the CATP to Erie County on Feb. 12. EF Johnson presented methodologies and procedures identified in the CATP in person on Feb. 19.
This allowed the consultant, MCM Consulting Group Inc., and Erie County officials an opportunity to address questions prior to starting the Coverage Acceptance Test, according to the news release.
Grappy said the CATP will not be conducted until late spring or summer under full foliage conditions to ensure the county’s coverage requirements have been met.
The final acceptance testing, signifying the final completion of the county’s new radio system, will not occur until Erie County officials, in conjunction with first responders, ensure coverage requirements have been met across Erie County, according to the news release.