Commissioners agree to update county’s 911 Dispatch Center to an IP-based system, will greatly improve technology level

By Laura Schiermeier, Staff Writer
Posted 9/29/21

MARIES COUNTY — There are two companies currently working with Maries County and the sheriff’s office to bring the equipment and technology capacity in its 911 Dispatch Center into the …

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Commissioners agree to update county’s 911 Dispatch Center to an IP-based system, will greatly improve technology level

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MARIES COUNTY — There are two companies currently working with Maries County and the sheriff’s office to bring the equipment and technology capacity in its 911 Dispatch Center into the 21st Century. 

At last Thursday’s Maries County Commission meeting, representatives from wirelessUSA and Motorola Solutions had discussions with County IT Manager Shane Sweno and Chief Sheriff’s Deputy Major Scott John. The commissioners and County Clerk Rhonda Rodgers were present also, mostly listening as the conversation was about things they don’t know a lot about. Fortunately Sweno and John do. WirelessUSA’s Communications Consultant John Briggs and Victor Attard the service manager out of Columbia and Jefferson City offices were present as well as Denise Gibbs of Motorola Solutions out of Springfield.

Presiding Commissioner Victor Stratman told them the county’s 911 system is antiquated. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the county is receiving $1.6 million from the federal government to help recover from the pandemic. The 911 Dispatch Center is a place the commissioners have all agreed that needs improvements and they are expensive. Stratman said in a small county with about 9,000 residents and only two small cities, most people live out in the country. When these citizens call 911, they expect the phone to be answered within one or two rings. They decided to make the 911 Dispatch Center a priority and get the equipment, radios and technology where it needs to be. 

Briggs said they did a site visit to Maries County’s Dispatch Center. Stratman said there are other people within the county wanting to use the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money. Vienna Fire wants help with radio purchases and the commissioners want everyone to be able to communicate effectively.

Gibbs said other counties are using the ARPA money to pay for improvements to public safety. She said she completely understands how important 911 availability is. The day before she was in the Kansas City area and had to call 911. Her call immediately was put on hold for about 20 seconds. “It felt like a long time,” she said, adding it was a bad experience and spotlighted how important a prompt 911 response is. 

Sweno said he’s used Motorola equipment in the past and as a dispatcher he can’t image a nicer or more stable system. He explained that some local fire departments want to stay on their current VHF radio channels. Vienna Fire wants to migrate to the Missouri Statewide Interoperability Network (MOSWIN) but the department needs updated radios in order to proceed. The current radios have to use repeater towers. At the dispatch center, the dispatchers would like to be able to patch two channels together but are not able to with the current system.

Major John said the sheriff’s office currently is the only one using MOSWIN in Maries County. Vienna PD has difficulties communicating at certain spots in Vienna and they are unable to talk if they get too far from Vienna, such as assisting the county on a call or if the officer gets in a pursuit. He said they may be able to add repeaters to their current radios to enable better coverage but ideally getting them on MOSWIN is the best solution. They will be able to talk anywhere in the state with that radio network. There is room is the dispatch area as there is a closet dedicated entirely to equipment. John said since they are looking at doing a six-figure improvement, it makes sense to put all local law enforcement on MOSWIN.

The specs brought to the commissioners that day were for radio-based solutions. Attard suggested they trade off with the hardware and do an Internet Protocol (IP) network instead. 

Major John explained about the orange button on all of the law enforcement radios, which is a panic button. If an officer out in the field is shot and falls to the ground, if he is able to hit the panic button, its radio ID is trackable and it automatically broadcasts for help. He said, “We can’t currently hear it in our center” but the Highway Patrol and Rolla can. They then contact Maries County to have them check on our units. Major John said with improvements, they would be able to hear the officer’s emergency in the county’s dispatch center and this potentially can save lives by getting there sooner. 

Briggs said this is the reason Phelps County went to MOSWIN as it had so many agencies and antennas. Attard said Maries County will need some work on its antenna as well. Briggs said with an IP system, the county can use its existing radios as back-up if the IP goes down. 

The price the company brought to the commissioners that day is $212,000. Going with the IP would be a bigger increase, potentially adding an additional $30,000 or more. A new proposal will be needed, but the reps said the groundwork already has been laid. Major John said this will leap frog the county’s communications into the future and $30,000 is not that much when they are already talking about spending $200,000. He said if all local agencies come over to MOSWIN, the current system they have would not be able to handle it and they would have a problem. Now they have mutual aid channels they can rotate to and all talk. But with this system they can patch two channels together without changing the dials.

The software in the new system will connect with an agency, such as MOAD and the dispatcher will do it for them and the agency will be able to hear what’s going on at the scene. They won’t have to worry about finding the right channel as they are driving down the road to get to the scene. 

“This is the time to tell us what you want. We’ve got the money now,” Stratman told them. 

John said they need to talk to Vienna Fire and Vienna PD “as they will need to leave the VHF world behind and go to the MOSWIN world.” Major John said this will be a safety improvement for Vienna PD. Sweno said they talked about ordering radios as a package to save money and putting a package together for a group buy. Sweno contacted Vienna PD Chief Shannon Thompson by phone who reported the mobile and portable radios are MOSWIN capable, but they have trouble when they go inside a building, such as a school. Major John said a vehicle repeater will take care of that. 

Briggs said with a vehicle repeater, when officers go into the grocery store, the brick and the metal in the building impact the radio reception. The portable radio talks to the repeater, which is interfaced with the mobile radio in the car with the power. It’s a relay to the car radio.Major John said they use the MOSWIN towers in Brinktown, Rolla and Drake. 

Western District Commissioner Ed Fagre asked what they would do with the old radios and Gibbs said they will do a trade-in. Briggs said they will do a radio discount for Maries County if it wants to join in with other agencies in the radio purchase. Major John said it will be a major update to the county’s 911 capabilities, officer safety, and first responders. 

“Now is the time,” Fagre said. Major John said these updates will make Maries County one of the better equipped third class counties in the state. 

Right now the commissioners want to “concentrate on downstairs,” Fagre said. Attard, the equipment man, said what Vienna PD really needs is a vehicle repeater to eliminate a lot of dead spots and also would need its own group talk. They can still use the existing radios. 

The commissioners asked about a time frame and were told six to eight months. There is a lot of planning involved as the equipment is put up at the factory and tested. There are some part shortages, too. Gibbs said this project “is not the biggest we’ve done, but it is just as important.” 

Eastern District Commissioner Doug Drewel said if the county puts all this in it won’t cost the others as much to get on board. 

“911 is our main objective,” Stratman said. “We want a system that’s good.” He said the county is getting $1.6 million and they want to spend it all but they don’t want to throw it away either. 

Briggs said they will shift gears and go back and revise the plan into an IP-based plan rather than it being radio-based. He will do a separate plan for Vienna PD. Major John said the way it works now is they can’t communicate if they pursue a vehicle out of town. At 15 miles away they lose capability. Stratman said they don’t want that. 

“We have a plan,” Briggs told them. 

“This will put us on the same technology level as Rolla, Phelps County and the Highway Patrol,” Major John said.

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