Communications system links agencies
By the end of 2000, Colorado Springs and El Paso County, Colo., expect to complete construction of a countywide communications system that is the largest inter-governmental project the city and county have undertaken. The $28 million system is the culmination of more than four years of work to design and implement a communications network that can be shared by Colorado Springs Utility (CSU) and governmental agencies, including public safety and public service.
Limited interoperability was a driving force behind the project; communications technology used by some agencies was incompatible with that of others, making it difficult to efficiently handle even the most routine calls that required a multi-agency response. The Colorado Springs population, which had reached 360,000, had expanded west of the city, contributing to the need for a broad communications coverage. Furthermore, coverage could be unpredictable, thanks to the city and county topography. (The city’s elevation ranges from 6,300 to 6,800 feet in the east, and rises sharply in the west, reaching 14,110 feet at Pikes Peak.)
The existing systems could not be expanded because additional frequency bands were unavailable. Mandates on spectrum efficiency from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) meant agencies soon would have to replace aging systems to meet narrow-banding requirements.
In June 1999, Colorado Springs and El Paso County created an inter-governmental agreement that formed the Pikes Peak Regional Communications Network Agency (PPRCN). Operated by a board that includes representatives from the city, county and CSU, PPRCN will manage the procurement, installation and operation of the shared communications system.
The utility, which provides electric, gas, wastewater and water services to the city, already operated an 800 Megahertz analog system that could serve as the technological foundation for the countywide network. To determine whether a digital application of the technology could support inter-governmental communications needs, a project team conducted a variety of field tests. (For example, the team drove more than 3,000 miles over a four-week period to verify coverage for selected sites.)
With input from CSU, local government agencies and the project team, PPRCN selected 800 Megahertz, trunked, dual-mode technology (i.e., digital technology with analog capabilities) for its new network. Last September, it contracted with Schaumburg, Ill.-based Motorola to design and install the network, and construction of nine system sites is now under way.
When the system is fully installed, it will include 75 channels; more than 4,100 digital, portable radios and mobile radios; and consoles at three dispatch centers. (It has additional capacity to accommodate future expansion.) Agencies are being organized into talk groups to enhance the system’s interoperability.
The system will be tested during the first quarter of 2001. CSU will be the first user, and other agencies will migrate later in the year. The agencies that will share the system include, from Colorado Springs, the Airport Authority; Transit; Facilities; Fire; Golf Courses and Cemetery; Parks; Pikes Peak Highway; Police; Streets; Traffic Engineering; and Transportation. From El Paso County, they include the Coroner’s Office; Parks; Transportation; the District Attorney’s Office; Fire; Search and Rescue; and the Sheriff’s Office.
The entire system will operate in the dual mode initially, giving CSU the time to budget for new digital hardware. Eventually, it will operate primarily as a digital network. However, analog channels will be maintained for mutual aid communication with outside agencies.
Colorado Springs and El Paso County are among the fastest-growing regions in the country. The new communications system will enhance service efficiency and help ensure that the city and county governments keep pace with continuing growth.
This article was written by Robert Weller, project manager for PPRCN and deputy chief of the Support Services Division for the Colorado Springs Fire Department.