In the nearly four years since York County's new $36 million radio system went live, the emergency communication system has had its share of complaints and praise, glitches and fixes.
But after years of headaches and a multi-million-dollar investment, a new federal law could force York's taxpayers to spend another estimated $30 million for new equipment.
The same law that extended the payroll tax holiday, unemployment compensation and Medicare payments in February carried a provision through which agencies using a bandwidth known as T-Band must turn over their bandwidth to the Federal Communications Commission for reoptioning.
Because of the demand for available frequencies, the government wants public safety agencies to surrender their frequencies so they can be auctioned off in the marketplace. The government would reallocate the 700 MHz "D Block" to public safety.
York uses T-Band, which would be incompatible with the D-Block plan, said Eric Bistline, director of the York County Department of Emergency Services.
"We have to put in a whole new system, yes," he said. "It's a rebuild of the entire system. You can't modify the equipment ... because the frequency spread is too wide."
So York's state-of-the-art system, "the first P-25 digital trunked radio system operating in simulcast in the United States," could need another $30 million in new equipment, Bistline said.
Some of the infrastructure of the current system could be used, but even the dispatch consoles through which dispatchers communicate with responders in the field would have to be replaced, Bistline said.
Why? The law gives public safety agencies about a decade to make the switch, and Bistline said he's already looking for new frequencies and talking with consultants. Having just completed the process of launching a new radio system, he's "getting pretty good at it now," he said.
"Some people say, 'You know what? This is Congress ... an elected body, and they might overturn it,'" he said. "But the law is passed and it is what it is and we have to operate under the assumption that it isn't going to change."
While the county would have to bear the cost up front, the law also contains a provision under which the FCC would use the proceeds of the auction to compensate the public service agencies that had to make changes.
But there's no dollar amount set, and Bistline said he's concerned and skeptical about whether the auction will cover the costs for every agency in the United States.
He said he understands why the change is necessary, but taxpayers might be tuned to a different frequency.
"They'll be angry because they'll only be able to see that the county spent a lot of money to put this system in," he said. "If I were a taxpayer and that's all I understood about the technology, I would be angry. But people don't understand there are only so many frequencies available. If you could hold a blue light in the sky above you and see the radio waves, it would be astounding."
Platts: U.S. Rep. Todd Platts, R-York County, voted in favor of the bill.
He said the D-Block effort was a top recommendation from the 9/11 Commission Report, necessary to build out the public safety broadband network.
The need for radio improvements became obvious after the terrorist attacks, and the change was "well-intended" and will increase public safety. It will benefit all Americans, while giving the private entities market access to the bandwidth they've been wanting, he said.
"It's been a goal, since the 9/11 Commission recommendation came out ... to move forward with it," he said.
The bill doesn't specify dollar amounts for reimbursement to public safety agencies because Congress doesn't know how much it'll cost to make the switch, he said.
But the law's language does provide for the auction proceeds to pay for the change and, if the future costs are higher than the auction proceeds, a future Congress will have to decide "how to pay for this legal obligation," Platts said.
"Congress ... will have to stay on top of it in the coming years," he said.
Commissioner's reaction: But that might not be enough peace of mind for President County Commissioner Steve Chronister.
"I just think it's absolutely ridiculous," he said. "We got this great system and if they're going to pass this mandate, the money should follow. I wish them a lot of luck convincing our taxpayers that we have to do this."
He said if York County has to make the changes and pass the cost along to local taxpayers, "there would be an uprising, and I'd be leading the way."
- Reach Christina Kauffman at email@example.com.