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Santa Rosa Mulls Emergency Communications Improvements

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The Santa Rosa County Commission is mulling over an upgrade to the county’s emergency communications system. The the issue again goes before the panel on Thursday.

The idea is to get all Santa Rosa first responders on the same page of the hymnal – or in this case, on the same channel. County Administrator Hunter Walker says communications in emergency response can be compared to an algebra equation, in that there are two sides.

“You’ve got the incoming calls to the dispatching center, and that piece of the equation is fine,” said Walker. “The portion we’re concentrating on is going from the dispatcher to the ambulance, fire departments, the sheriff’s and then the two municipalities’ police departments.”

Much of the equipment that’s being targeted for replacement is analog, dating back to the 1960s and 70s. The plan is to go to a digital system, and use frequencies in the 700 to 800 Megahertz field. That, Walker says, would comply with what he calls a shrinking bandwidth for emergency calls. Approximate cost of the upgrade is around $7.2 million, which Walker says is a relative bargain.

“One time, the estimate of the cost going back to….2000 or 2002, was about $15 million,” Walker said. “Computer equipment has become more sophisticated, the technology has gotten so much more reasonable, as opposed to the old radio technology that it’s replacing.”

Both Walker and the County Commission are hoping a Municipal Services Taxing Unit – MSTU – can help foot the bill at about $9.50 per parcel of property. That would raise an estimated $860,000 per year, based on about 90,000 parcels in Santa Rosa County.

There’s a laundry list of hardware and software to purchase for the upgrade, including the replacement of the county’s six radio tower sites. Overall, the “Out with the old and in with the new” will be a gigantic task.

“We’ll obviously replace the recorder,” Walker said. “Three hundred-80 mobile radios, 720 portable radios. We will partner with Escambia County on their system and then we will need to do a tower at the Munson School connecting the two counties.”

The proposal is set for a second reading at Thursday’s Commission meeting, with a vote immediately afterward. The panel’s also expected to vote on what Administrator Hunter Walker calls “multiple actions.”

The Santa Rosa County Commission’s regular meeting kicks off at 9:00 a.m. Thursday at the county administrative complex in Milton.