Officals say new emergency system needed

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SARASOTA COUNTY - First responders are relying heavily on their emergency communication system -- a system officials say is working but in desperate need for an upgrade.  This week, most county commissioners agreed, voting to go ahead with looking a nearly $20 million investment.

The guts of the Sarasota County emergency radio and call center are aging. "The safety radio system we have now is approaching 16 years old."  Fire Chief with Sarasota County Emergency Services Mike Tobias says it's time to raise caution. "We are getting increasingly concerned with the reliability of the components. The manufacturer is no longer supporting many of the components we are using in the system."

To the north, responders in Manatee County are dealing with troubles as well.  "We currently operate on two different systems that are not technologically compatible."

There are troubles to the south covering a growing North Port. "We have experienced some additional coverage problems in the eastern part of the city."

So emergency officials have a plan: a $18.5 million plan to overhaul the system to a new 800 megahertz digital p25 version.  "Computer technology has evolved a great deal in the past 16 years."

It would include things like fiber optics, GPS tracking, and two new towers - including one in North Port.  The time is now they say as the county also looks to build a new emergency operations center. "We could not take what we have now and reuse it. We would have to do some type of equipment update."

This week Sarasota County commissioners voted 3-2 to continue pursuing the plan. The two opposed have issues with reported bugs in the P25 system and just how long it will before the new technology will itself be outdated. "Their concerns are the performance of the P25 systems and they want to make sure we are getting a system that will not be prematurely outdated."

In the meantime Tobias says they will get by. "We do have spare equipment and there is no threat to public safety of the visitors and residents in Sarasota County."

The plan and all that money will be used for the infrastructure for the updated system. The county along with other local municipalities will have to spend even more for things like radios in order to communicate with it. That replacement could drive the total price tag to more than $30 million.

The county will be hiring a consultant to come up with exactly how much everything could cost before commissioners decided on final approval.