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North country counties look to join 5-county communication consortium

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Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties are looking to join an emergency radio consortium that five other counties already use in order to improve communications and gain access to grant funding for radio upgrades.

“You have five counties’ experiences in working out new radio systems that are interoperable,” said Lewis County Manager David H. Pendergast.

Lewis County legislators voted June 5 to join the Central New York Interoperable Communication Consortium, formed in 2007 by Cayuga, Cortland, Oswego, Onondaga and Madison counties.

A proposal to join the consortium should come before the St. Lawrence County Board of Legislators in July, St. Lawrence County Sheriff Kevin M. Wells said.

“The advantage is being able to work together for grants,” he said. “The state is looking for regional sharing.”

And at a committee meeting last week, Jefferson County legislators gave preliminary approval to join the consortium.

Legislator Steven T. Harter, R-LeRay, the chairman of the county’s ad hoc radio committee, said the three-year undertaking could improve the ability of local first responders to get to the scene quickly and communicate with one another.

“Police could talk to fire, fire could talk to police, police could talk to the ambulances and they could all talk to the helicopter,” Mr. Harter said. “All different jurisdictions would have the capability to carry on numerous conversations at one time on different frequencies.”

Other parts of the state already have radio systems that coordinate with this amount of flexibility, Mr. Harter said.

“This is not Star Wars technology,” Mr. Harter said. “This is up and running in nearby areas. It’s not all brand new. It’s new to us, but it’s not all brand new.”

Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, through their respective 911 coordinators, last year formed an unofficial emergency radio coalition, but having a larger and more formal group should prove even more beneficial, Mr. Pendergast said.

Officials from the three counties attended a meeting of the consortium in late May, and members were helpful in sharing information, Mr. Pendergast said.

That expertise and increased potential for federal Homeland Security grant funding will be particularly useful for Lewis County as it continues to work on an expensive emergency radio upgrade project.

Federal Engineering Inc., Fairfax, Va., in December completed a $53,000 study of the radio system that identified many deficiencies, including spotty coverage in many areas and little interoperability between emergency agencies. It recommended an upgrade, estimated at $6.4 million to $11.6 million, that could be done in phases.

Lewis County in April retained the Wladis Law Firm, Syracuse, to help apply for radio funding and recently contracted with C&S Companies, Syracuse, to do pre-design work on the project for up to $40,000.

All five counties in the existing consortium have done or are completing radio upgrade projects designed to improve communication within their borders and with surrounding counties, and Wladis and C&S both have done work for at least a couple of them, Mr. Pendergast said.

The Department of Homeland Security has a few more funding rounds scheduled this year, with the deadline for applications in the next one coming on July 16, he said.

With the help of the consultants, county officials will need to determine exactly what segment of the project to initially request funding for, Mr. Pendergast said. The current dispatch center at the Lewis County Public Safety Building on outer Stowe Street in Lowville will probably not be adequate to house a new radio system, so county officials also will need to further discuss that issue, he said.

Times staff writers Brian Amaral and Martha Ellen contributed to this report.

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