City’s new first responders radio system will be costly

Here in Honolulu, or anywhere for that matter, after you call 911, you expect to get help quickly.

That’s dependent upon a reliable radio system for first responders. The city’s system, known as the Enhanced Digital Access Communication System, is almost 20 years old, and city officials say it is time to develop a new one.

Already half the mobile units now can work with the system when it is finally in place based on a standard called Project 25. The standard is being mandated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for first responders nationwide. Still, it will take up to three years to completely change out the system here in Honolulu.

KHON2 asked Mark Wong, director of the City’s Department of Information Technology, if there have been any problems in changing out the system.  “Everybody wants to move faster than we’re able to,” said Wong, “but I have to dispel the idea that we’re behind the times and the system is obsolete. New York and L.A. are just doing this now.”

The transition will not come cheap.  The move to upgrade all 18 communication towers and attached buildings will cost an estimated $86 million. Then the mobile radio units will come with a $45 million price tag.

The cost to maintain the new system once it is completed is not yet known.

Wong took KHON2 to the top of the Fasi Municipal Building, where the central radio system is located.  The microwave system there communicates with the rest of the towers island-wide.

The ability to communicate with all first responders and any other agency allowed to patch into the system is called inter-operability.

“If we are inter-operating with other radio systems, it will all be based on the same standard (P25),” said Wong.

The biggest cost of the new system is to make sure all 18 towers can withstand Category Four hurricane winds of up to 156 miles an hour.

While she is always watching the bottom line, a key lawmaker says the new system will be worth it.

“It’s not bad putting in money for public safety, as long as we have a system that works,” said Honolulu City Council member Ann Kobayashi, chair of the council’s budget committee.

One of her concerns has been to ensure that the system not only serves taxpayers, but first responders as well.

But even Wong admits that no system is perfect. “I think definitely there are weak spots for radio, just as there is for cell coverage,” he said.

The city hopes to issue a Request for Proposals in search of a new vendor for the P25 system before the end of the year.

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