UP County Diverts DHS Narrowbanding Grants

Published December 26, 2011

Counties in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula are using a $1.2 million Department of Homeland Security grant to help pay for narrowband upgrades mandated by the Federal Communications Commission. The unfunded FCC mandate has presented difficulties for several financially strapped counties and municipalities throughout the United States.

However, on October 28 the Escanaba Daily Press reported the UP’s Delta County, in addition to upgrading radio systems, is using DHS grant money to upgrade “Grab and Go” emergency response bags that contain safety equipment for school classrooms. The funds were also used to purchase ballistic shields for law-enforcement agencies.

“What’s questionable is the county’s use of FCC grant money for emergency response bags in classrooms and ballistic shields for law enforcement,” said Steve Titch, telecom policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, a nonpartisan public policy research institute that promotes individual liberty and free markets. “These have little, if anything, to do with meeting the narrowbanding mandate and suggest that the grant was excessive,” he said.

Equipment Needed Replacing
Announced in 2006, the narrowbanding transition deadline is January 1, 2013. The transition requires traditional public safety entities, schools (including school buses), transportation departments, mass transit agencies, and community watches to replace current 25 kHz technology with 12.5 kHz technology.
The FCC is reducing the size of radio channels in congested bands to allow additional channels to be created within the same spectrum. With public safety and public works departments operating within the congested bands, the FCC is mandating that many departments using older radio systems upgrade them.

The Regional Homeland Security Program is a federal grant that assists counties in meeting narrowband requirements.
“The narrowbanding mandate, which essentially doubles channel capacity, is part of an FCC effort to move toward more efficient use of bandwidth, and is reasonable given the evolution of mobile technologies and the demand for spectrum,” said Titch.

“There is a limited amount of spectrum space available, and every year there are more and more people, organizations, government entities, and companies needing it,” said Mike Arman, a member of the Oak Hill, Florida, grants management and personnel boards. “Much of this equipment really needs to be replaced anyway.”

Arman added, “During the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, the police department discovered that their equipment wouldn’t talk to the fire department or the emergency responders, let alone the military. Multijurisdictional communications are vital in an emergency. These people must be able to talk to each other and coordinate.”

Narrowband Assistance
Michigan is divided into eight congressional districts, with the Upper Peninsula’s 15 counties making up the 8th District. Each county has a representative on the 15-member Homeland Security Planning Board, and Tim McKee, emergency management coordinator for Chippewa County, is the 8th District representative.

McKee says the state distributed the funds to the Homeland Security Planning Board in each of the districts. “We identify projects that fill the gaps of our capability assessment, and one of those gaps is communications. An assessment was conducted of all of the police, fire, and EMS first-responder agencies to identify their communications capability. We utilized our Homeland Security funds to fill those gaps. Some counties do a better job of maintaining their equipment and meeting standards than others,” McKee said.

“We were able to purchase pagers, narrowband-capable mobile radios, and replaced some repeaters at various sites throughout the Upper Peninsula,” he added.

Titch says the DHS grant was irresponsibly managed.

“A better, more fiscally responsible approach would have been to dispense no federal money at all, and simply require police departments to phase in the new radios over a longer period, say three to five years, allowing the cost of new radios to be factored into annual county and municipal budgets,” said Titch.

“As these are rural counties, frequency congestion would not have been as acute a problem as it would be in population centers that are more densely populated,” Titch noted.

Alyssa Carducci ([email protected]) writes from Tampa, Florida. Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.

Internet Info

“Federal Grant Helps Region,” Jenny Lancour, Escanaba Daily Press, October 28, 2011: http://www.dailypress.net/page/content.detail/id/533106/Federal-grant-helps-region.html?nav=5003