Static Problems: Cumberland County looks to update radio system

Published 7:36 am Friday, January 26, 2024

Prince Edward isn’t the only county looking to fix a radio problem. In neighboring Cumberland County, the issue is just as bad. 

“Our radio system is antiquated and has coverage issues across the county,” Cumberland Administrator Derek Stamey told supervisors during their Tuesday, Jan. 9 meeting. 

The county’s current radio system is used by virtually every department, from the sheriff’s office to dispatch, fire and rescue administration, volunteer fire departments, EMS providers, animal protection and public works. And the problem, much like the issue Prince Edward has been dealing with, is the fact there are areas in the county where it’s hard to get a signal. That’s not the best when getting a 911 call or a request for backup. And so, Cumberland staff have been looking at options. 

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“This is a project that’s been in the hopper for several years now,” Stamey said. “The county began evaluating a new radio system in the winter of 2021. Sheriff’s office, public works, fire and EMS all began analyzing proposals from multiple vendors. Essentially they reached out to any vendor that was under a state cooperative contract and asked for recommendations on how to improve the system, how to price that system out and the best way to implement it.” 

And so, over time, the departments and county staff came up with a couple of options. 

Cumberland County options

Option one involves upgrading the county’s own system. That would mean building new towers, going through the conditional use permitting processing and working with the Federal Aviation Administration to get clearance. A new system, as Prince Edward has discovered, would run anywhere from $2.6 million to $4.5 million for a new system. You can also add in annual maintenance at around $200,000. 

“That is all expensive and very time consuming,” Stamey said. 

Option two involves just using the existing towers with updated equipment. But that doesn’t address the coverage problems. You would still need to build new towers if you want to fill in some of those gaps. 

Then there’s option three. This involves partnering with another jurisdiction. On the one hand, it would lower the cost of new towers, but it would be more expensive on the maintenance side. And, Stamey pointed out, you’d be at the mercy of the partner if they ever want to back out of the deal or make changes. 

In the end, Stamey and the department heads didn’t go with any of those options. Instead, they chose to present Option Four. 

Under Option Four, Cumberland County will partner with the Virginia State Police. Cumberland will basically become a tenant on the VSP system, using their network. Now Cumberland purchases all of the needed equipment, but there are no new radio towers needed. They would utilize the current towers in Cumberland, Louisa and Prince Edward for signal. 

“It’s much better coverage, almost 99%,” Stamey said.  

As for maintenance, if there’s a problem with the VSP system, there’s already a technician assigned to fix it. VSP officials told Cumberland that any issues with dispatch would be looked at and fixed within an hour’s time. Any non-emergencies would be addressed within 24 hours. 

What about the price? 

Estimated startup costs for this option would run just under $2 million, with annual costs of roughly $98,000 for years two through five in the program. As for how it would be paid for, that’s been planned as well. 

During the last few years, as county staff were looking for solutions, Cumberland went through a debt service restructuring. This happened in the spring of 2022, freeing up $2.1 million. Stamey said that money was set aside, untouched, to be used when supervisors were ready to move forward with a radio upgrade. That would cover the upfront costs to move forward with the State Police. 

Cumberland County supervisors gave their approval during the Jan. 9 meeting, complimenting Stamey on the work he and his staff did to put this together. Now there still are a few pieces to work on before the deal is in place. First, Cumberland and the Virginia State Police will have to develop an official memorandum of understanding. Once that’s done, it would take between six to 12 months to implement the system, buying the necessary equipment, getting it installed, etc.