60-year radio leap

LEWIS – Essex County’s new emergency services radio system is almost complete.

Don Jaquish, director of the county’s emergency services as well as the team working on the project, discussed the progress Thursday along with Deputy Director Michael Blaise and Carl Smith, project manager of Wells Communication.

Jaquish showed the Enterprise the new equipment, the data room and also a nearby upgraded microwave radio tower.

Inside the data room there is a “giant computer network” that will run the new microwave system. The room itself is small and 70 degrees, with air conditioners blowing constantly so the equipment doesn’t overheat. In almost every direction there are tightly packed wires that look more like thick ropes, connecting to and from each machine.

“It’s the pipeline between the different radio sites,” Smith said. “It all starts here.”

“It’s the hub of the wheel,” Jaquish added.

The $17 million project was years in the making, starting with studies in 2001. There were countless regulations, easements and other roadblocks thrown in the county’s way, with added legal fees, Jaquish said. The county needed and got approval from the state Adirondack Park Agency to build the new communication sites, and also from the Federal Communications Commission to secure the radio frequencies.

“When we first started the project, wow, it is night and day,” Jaquish said of the APA.

Microwave towers

The new microwave towers are not yet operational, but the project is expected to be finished by late fall. Jaquish said the upgraded microwave radio system is about 80 percent complete.

The county’s emergency system infrastructure consists of six active radio sites, eight paging sites and 13 microwave radio sites. Part of the paging system is currently in use; they literally page fire departments and first responders to alert them to an emergency situation.

The sites themselves are prefabricated, square buildings that meet current, stricter safety standards and are bulletproof.

“We can no longer use a wooden shed on the top of the hill for a tower,” Jaquish said.

On the Wells Hill microwave tower site, the difference is visibly noticeable between the new and old towers and buildings. The old building looks like a small shack in comparison to the new one, which has a security system installed, designed to protect and keep an eye on the critical piece of infrastructure from vandals or terrorist attacks. A metal fence with barbed wire also surrounds the site.

“The system is designed to prevent intrusion,” Smith said.

The Wells Hill tower is on a plot of land leased to the county by NYCO Minerals, a mining company in Lewis. It’s one of several of these radio sites that are leased to the county, with five- to 10-year contracts. Another is on Little Whiteface Mountain, part of Whiteface Mountain Ski Center in Wilmington, owned by the state of New York. The county built it where a former ski patrol outpost was located for around $700,000. There is also a communication site in Castleton, Vermont, to help cover the east end of the county.

Two sites are owned outright by the county: on Terry Mountain in Peru and Bellfry Mountain in Moriah.

Frequencies

The key word with the new radio system is “interoperability,” Smith said.

“With this system there will be a common frequency for everyone to talk on,” Blaise added.

There will be a total of 23 radio frequencies for the new system. The process of securing these frequencies took years going through the Federal Communications Commission and also asking permission from the Canadian regulatory body that is the equivalent of the FCC.

Each frequency has a specific purpose. County emergency services, fire departments, state police, highway departments and emergency first responders will all be within the system. The state police and New York State Electric and Gas are county partners on the project.

The county hired Motorola to design the radio system. The mountainous terrain of the Adirondacks did not make that task easy because it interfered with the lines of sight between the towers.

“Designing this radio system was very difficult for the Motorola engineers,” Blaise said.

Big upgrade

The new radio system is a major upgrade for the county, Jaquish said.

“The old system was built in the ’50s,” Jaquish said. “It really was a radio system that was put in so the fire departments had a radio. It was really used to call for mutual aid.”

“The sites are purposefully set up for the best coverage,” Blaise added.

Jaquish said the new radio system should last for about 20 years before it will need some software improvements.

Contact Matthew Turner at 518-891-2600 ext. 25 or mturner@adirondackdailyenterprise.com.