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Monday, August 25, 2014

Nashua considers bonding for $6 million radio system upgrade

NASHUA – City officials are contemplating a $6 million upgrade for the city’s radio communication systems that could help lay the groundwork for a regional partnership with public safety agencies in Manchester.

The Board of Aldermen is scheduled to hold a public hearing Tuesday night on whether the city should issue bonds to pay for the new radio equipment, which comes as part of a sweeping overhaul of the city-wide communications system. Aldermen also are asking the public to weigh in Tuesday on a separate request to issue bonds of up to $750,000 to design and pay for a new telephone system for all city divisions, including the schools and the fire and police departments. ...

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NASHUA – City officials are contemplating a $6 million upgrade for the city’s radio communication systems that could help lay the groundwork for a regional partnership with public safety agencies in Manchester.

The Board of Aldermen is scheduled to hold a public hearing Tuesday night on whether the city should issue bonds to pay for the new radio equipment, which comes as part of a sweeping overhaul of the city-wide communications system. Aldermen also are asking the public to weigh in Tuesday on a separate request to issue bonds of up to $750,000 to design and pay for a new telephone system for all city divisions, including the schools and the fire and police departments.

The radio communications upgrade was initiated in 2012 after spotty performance prompted Mayor Donnalee Lozeau to assemble a committee to study the city’s needs. Nashua’s 800 megahertz radio system has been in operation since 2000 and uses obsolete equipment that can no longer be repaired.

The committee called for upgrading and replacing the system in five phases, with an overall cost in the range of roughly $7.5 million to $10 million.

The crossover will bring the city into compliance with a new technology standard for public safety entities across the country, referred to as “Project 25.” The new standard allows radios from different manufacturers to communicate with one another.

The city implemented the first phase of the overhaul in December 2012. Aldermen approved issuing up to $1.6 million in bonds to pay for new radio infrastructure equipment from Motorola, which carried a cost of a little more than $1.5 million.

The remaining work consists largely of transitioning the city’s 10 radio channels for firefighters, police and other employees to new technology and replacing portable and mobile radios with newer models compliant with the Project 25 standard.

An inventory conducted last year showed the city had 697 portable radios in use. About half can be upgraded to make them “P25” compliant, while the remainder must be replaced. The city also will need to replace nearly all of the 353 mobile radios in the city.

Paying for the next phase

A resolution before the Board of Aldermen would authorize the city to issue bonds worth up to $6 million to pay for phase two and phase three of the radio upgrade.

Documents presented to the aldermen this week don’t summarize the scope of the work, but when the project was introduced in 2012, those phases were expected to consist of overhauling six radio channels and replacing a portion of the mobile and portable radios.

An estimate generated by one of Motorola’s vendors in April pegged the cost of the “P25 Simulcast Infrastructure Migration” and associated services at $5.8 million. The cost includes “necessary hardware, software and services” to upgrade the city’s main radio communications site and the equipment at three towers at the Four Hills transfer station, Kessler Farms and on Shakespeare Road, according to the Motorola estimate.

Moving toward regional system

Implementing the new technology will help the city position itself for a possible future partnership with Manchester to create a regional communications system.

Unlike most cities and towns in New Hampshire, Nashua and Manchester operate on the 800 megahertz frequency band. By contrast, New Hampshire State Police, authorities at Manchester Regional Airport and public safety agencies in smaller communities around the region operate on VHF.

The disparity makes radio communications during an emergency difficult, since it requires first responders to carry multiple radios or establish ad-hoc communication systems, or for dispatchers to patch communications together.

New Hampshire’s emergency protocols generally encourage communities to operate on VHF. However, Nashua is located near the Massachusetts border, and first responders in the Gate City sometimes provide mutual aid to agencies in the “Boston Core” that communicate on 800 megahertz frequencies.

Upgrading to new radio systems that use the P25 standard would allow Nashua and Manchester to communicate with any community where first responders have P25-compliant radios, regardless of whether those communities broadcast on 800 megahertz or VHF frequencies.

Partnering with Manchester to create a regional system could one day be a revenue generator for Nashua, according to a feasibility study completed in October. However, the Queen City is facing steep startup costs. The study determined it would be essential for Manchester to augment its radio coverage with new towers.

The study offered three scenarios for implementing the regional network, which projected costs to Nashua at between $5 million and $6.5 million.

Telephone system overhaul

A separate resolution would authorize the issuance of up to $750,000 in additional bond money to purchase a citywide telecommunications system and hire a consultant to design the new system.

Preliminary estimates put the actual cost at close to $500,000.

“The approach we want to take is to engage a consultant to help us craft a strategy that ... will result in overall cost savings to the City and a return on investment,” Mayor Donnalee Lozeau wrote in a memo last week. “We could take the approach of replacing what we have with upgraded equipment, but feel that the best approach is to leverage a standard system that is scalable and implementing best practices.”

City administrators hope to eliminate redundancies and cut down phone costs with the new system, which covers all city divisions, as well as the schools and the police and fire departments.

The system now handles 1,881 phones across all departments. Some of those phones rely on outdated technology purchased in the 1990s which is no longer supported by the vendor, according to the mayor, who wrote that spare parts are now difficult to find.

The city aims to first upgrade the telephone systems at the police and fire stations, then overhaul the the 1,155 phones in the school system and finish with the 520 phones used by all other city divisions. The project is slated to wrap up within three years.

The Board of Aldermen is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the two resolutions to issue bonds for the radio and telephone communication systems beginning at 7 p.m. Tuesday in City Hall.

Jim Haddadin can be reached at 594-6589 or jhaddadin@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Haddadin on Twitter (@Telegraph_JimH).