Ahead of the communications curve: The South Carolina State Interoperability Project
By Capt. Eddie Reyes
Hopefully by now I have established a better understanding of public safety communications and interoperability through my previous articles. I thought it might be helpful if I started sharing actual communications and interoperability projects that are successful in the United States.
In my travels during my former assignment at the National Institute of Justice, I learned that many regions such as Boston, Los Angeles, Miami and the National Capital Region have established very robust communications and interoperability systems. One factor that most successful communications systems have today is that they were heavily funded and considered after the horrible tragedy of September 11th.
However, one project that stands out for having been planned and initiated well before then is the South Carolina State Interoperability Project, commonly known as the “Palmetto 800 Trunked Radio Network”.
Just like any of the coastal states, South Carolina is no stranger to hurricanes. Hurricane Hugo, a destructive Category 5 hurricane that struck South Carolina in September of the 1989 Atlantic hurricane season, killed at least 70 people. The storm caused $13.6 billion (2005 USD) in damages, making it, at the time, the most damaging hurricane ever recorded, surpassing Hurricane Agnes.
As a result of Hurricane Hugo, in 1992 a public safety communications partnership was formed which became the thrust of today’s statewide radio system. In 1999, at the direction of the South Carolina General Assembly, the Public Safety Coordinating Council (PSCC) completed a comprehensive study of public safety communications in the forty-six counties.
The Council was created by an act of the South Carolina General Assembly. It is a “standing” state government entity (similar to a state board or commission). The Governor’s Office, Chief of the State Law Enforcement Division (SLED), Director of the Department of Public Safety (DPS), State Victim-Witness Advocate, House Judiciary Committee Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, a County Sheriff, and a Chief of Police hold seats on the PSCC. The report recommended the use of a statewide 800 MHz radio system (South Carolina Palmetto 800 Trunked Radio System or “PAL 800”) as the technology of choice for public safety interoperable communications.
In August 2001, South Carolina’s approach to develop a statewide radio system was unique in that it was a true-shared system. The State partnered with county and municipal governments and major public utilities to pool infrastructure and other resources.
In the beginning, the SCANA Corporation, the parent company of South Carolina Electric and Gas Company, a statewide for profit utility company, owned and operated a statewide radio system that served as the backbone of the South Carolina Palmetto 800 Trunked Radio System. But what really makes this system unique is that it is almost entirely self-supporting – user fees pay for its operation. A per month, per radio charge is based upon the number of tower sites required to provide an agency with coverage. The cost of future upgrades is included in the user fee charges.
While the system was built initially based upon demand, a steady increase in demand for statewide interoperable communications created significant system expansion. The system has been developed on a “pay as you go” basis with no government subsidies.
In 1999 Hurricane Floyd threatened South Carolina and caused renewed efforts to continue the development of PAL 800 and led to the State Interoperability Project. The State Interoperability Project resulted in the number of PAL 800 users increasing by more than 100% in four years. Prior to the project there were approximately 9,800 system users
The System and Technical Assistance
The National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center – Southeast (NLECTC – SE) was asked to provide technical assistance services to the State Budget and Control Board, Office of the Chief Information Officer (CIO) to plan, organize, and coordinate a program to effectively enhance interoperability and facilitate the transition of law enforcement agencies to PAL 800. National Institute of Justice (NIJ) grant funds were allocated in four phases for purchase of handheld, mobile, console, and repeater radio equipment for the project.
At project inception, the goal was to provide interoperable voice communications on the PAL 800 to all county and municipal law enforcement agencies without 800 MHz capabilities. Today, there are 20,232 voice users representing in excess of 350 agencies, making PAL 800 the largest shared radio system in the nation. The infrastructure and hardware today includes:
• 69 shared tower sites with a conventional repeater in every county (46)
• Today, the backbone of the PAL 800 System is a Motorola Smart Zone Radio System, Version 4.02
• Infrastructure providers include the State of South Carolina, county and local governments and the SCANA Corporation. These entities also provide the frequencies for this radio system, including the City of Augusta, GA.
• Pool resources include:
• Radios in VHS, UHF and 800 MHz
Breakdown by user type includes:
• Local Government – 62%
The State Interoperability Project has been implemented in four phases:
• Phase One: 13 agencies (completed)
* - in addition, 37 County Coroner’s Offices were provided one radio each for command-level communications.
South Carolina’s coastal counties (187 miles of coastline), population centers, evacuation routes, interstates, and ports were primary project priorities. Funding offers were extended to other law enforcement agencies as the project progressed inland. Through the four phases, the project provided 800 MHz radio equipment and interoperable communications on the PAL 800 to 178 county and municipal law enforcement agencies and 37 county coroners’ offices.
Since the SCANA Corporation was the primary provider of the critical infrastructure from 1993 – 2001, they were the original contract manager. Since then, oversight has been provided by the Palmetto 800 User Advisory Council which is comprised of system users in all public safety disciplines and levels of government. The Advisory Council is elected by their peers and meets monthly. Memorandums of understanding have also been executed in the six SC counties that maintain private 800 MHz radio systems.
Additionally, the State’s system key information is shared with the six counties maintaining their own radio system and vice-versa. This allows almost any public safety radio in South Carolina to work on any system by providing overlapping coverage.
In addition, the NLECTC-SE and the CIO team pursued an implementation strategy that emphasized individual contact with agencies, a fair and equitable funding formula, agency discretion in the selection of equipment, choice of vendors, simplification of “paperwork”, delivery of training on new equipment, and flexibility in the grant process.
The Project Team held individual and small group briefings with sheriffs and police chiefs at their offices to explain project goals and objectives. According to Mr. Robert Roberts, Project Manager of Law Enforcement Programs at NLECTC – SE, the project team consisted of NLECTC-SE and the SC State Budget and Control Board, CIO Office. This proved a suitable forum to discuss local concerns or issues associated with the project and PAL 800.
In several instances, project presentations were made to county and city councils to facilitate approval for agencies seeking to obtain funding for user fees. The vast majority of sheriffs and police chiefs were highly supportive of the project and elected to participate.
Grant funding, or congressionally directed funding secured by U. S. Senator Ernest Hollings - Retired in annual increments for four years provided 800 MHz radio equipment at no expense to agencies but did represent a new, recurring cost in the form of user fees.
Agencies were not required to fully transition communications to the PAL 800, as funding levels were insufficient to fully equip an agency. The goal was to enhance interoperability and encourage transition. Many agencies did commit local funds and fully transition to the PAL 800 while others did not. A small number of agencies declined the offer all together.
The funding formula included a base allocation and additional funds based upon population. The project team found the formula to be well received by agencies and it provided a fair and equitable method of allocating funds. As project funding was received in unequal increments, it was necessary to adjust the formula as the project progressed.
Agencies were invited to conduct their own needs assessment and given discretion in the selection of equipment. The agencies had the choice of selecting from two vendors at state contract pricing. Agencies conducted business directly with the vendor to generate their list of needed equipment. The project team was available to any agency needing additional advice or to address issues.
Flexibility in grant administration proved helpful in avoiding undue delays. Agency briefings were held on an ongoing basis for four years, thus some grant offers were made during the middle of an agency’s budget cycle, and no funds were available to pay user fees once the equipment was received. The project team permitted agencies to prepay six months of user fees from their funding allocation to ensure their transition at the earliest possible time.
User training for participating agencies was essential to the project. A comprehensive training program was instituted to ensure new users received proper training at their respective agencies. The CIO developed training aids, both Web-based and in CD and PowerPoint format, for distribution to agencies. The CIO coordinated with the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy to develop a training curriculum for 800 MHz users.
To date, the SC Palmetto 800 MHz trunked Radio System has been used many times in day-to-day emergencies. These events include a Norfolk Southern freight train with two locomotives and 42 rail cars, some of which were carrying chlorine gas, which derailed in 2005 in Graniteville, South Carolina. Nine fatalities resulted and hundreds required hospitalization after chlorine gas was released into the air.
PAL 800 provided interoperable communications at the disaster between the public safety agencies that responded and were equipped with 800 MHz radios which were received as a result of the State Interoperability Project. PAL 800 supported communications for over two hundred agencies and received praise for its performance.
More recently, South Carolina was recognized by the non-profit First Response Coalition that rates emergency communications in eight hurricane-prone states, saying many are "dangerously unprepared" for another disaster. The coalition said South Carolina has a "robust" statewide network with almost 20,000 users.
This year, the SC Palmetto 800 MHz Trunked Radio System became the largest shared public safety radio system in the nation with approximately 20,000 users representing some 350 agencies giving The Palmetto State another reason to have “smiling faces in beautiful places”.
Total funding for this project has been approximately $16 million and it has been built out in four, well thought-out phases. While Roberts says that “the key to success was the participation from local government agencies, the biggest challenge by far was the user fees, as this created a significant budget obstacle for most agencies even though all of the hardware was provided to each agency at no cost”.
A valuable lesson learned from this project was that “free grant equipment is no guarantee of acceptance and participation by local government agencies in a statewide radio system”.
Personal meetings in each of the regions with all disciplines and levels of government are a must if you intend to obtain buy in during the planning stages. In addition, mobile data is being considered with this system creating a new challenge as the project works to improve mobile data in the field.
For additional information on this project, please contact Mr. Robert H. Roberts, Project Manager of Law Enforcement Programs at NLECTC – SE at firstname.lastname@example.org or Mr. George Crouch, Wireless Technology Manager at the SC Budget & Control Board; Division of the State CIO in Columbia at email@example.com.
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