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Kerrville fire, police say antiquated radio systems are dangerous

During a City Council workshop on Nov. 16, the police and fire chiefs made a pitch for a replacement system expected to cost more than $3 million.

Kerrville's top two public safety officials told the City Council their departments desperately need new radios — now.

Citing multiple times when the current VHF-based system failed, Police Chief Chris McCall and Fire Chief Eric Maloney said the aging systems were a direct threat to the safety of police officers and firefighters.

However, the price tag to replace the systems is potentially steep — like more than $3 million, steep. During a presentation Tuesday morning, the chiefs outlined their challenges with the current system — now more than 20 years old.

McCall said during the drag racing crash at Kerrville-Kerr County Airport last month; public safety officials routed all radio traffic through one channel — due to the unreliability of a second channel. In turn, that jammed up the city's communications because of the scale of the airport scene, which resulted in three fatalities.

McCall and Maloney said police and fire could move to a secondary channel to handle a significant incident in normal operations. However, the city's second channel has proven to be so unreliable that officials abandoned it. The Hill Country topography compounds the radio issues, and they barely work inside large buildings, including Peterson Regional Medical Center and the new H-E-B grocery store.

Kerrville Police Chief Chris McCall, left, stands to answer questions with Fire Chief Eric Maloney during a City Council workshop on Nov. 16.

So, now the city wants to purchase a 700 mega-hertz — an area of spectrum designated for public safety — that would bring the departments up to current standards, provide interoperability with neighboring cities and be scalable for the future. The new system would eliminate the need for multiple channels by creating "talk groups" that allow greater communication flexibility, especially in a crisis.

Mayor Bill Blackburn cut to the chase.

"Where do we get the money from?" Blackburn asked city staff.

City Manager E.A. Hoppe said the money would come from the city's capital budget, potential grant program and that the city would have to find other savings.

City Councilwoman Kim Clarkson asked city staff how many more deferred maintenance projects are out there. "It seems like every big-ticket item is from deferred maintenance," Clarkson said.

Hoppe acknowledged the deferred maintenance issues but pointed to the city's effort to repair roads and drainage systems in recent months — part of a lengthy backlog of projects.

If the city staff can find the money, Information Technology Director Charvy Tork said implementation would be in 2022. The advantages of the systems versus propping up the current one are significant, Tork said.

The proposed system would replace all of KPD and KFD radios — more than 230 currently. The current system has no support — both from a vendor or a local technician — but a new system would be upgradeable. Whether some of this software is subscription-based (which is automatically updated) is unclear. However, the proactive maintenance systems and schedules are part of the attraction for Tork, McCall and Maloney.

McCall pointed out that just having a current Motorola radio checked out is $500 — that's before any repairs.

The new system would also improve the technology in the dispatch center and for emergency operations.

Hoppe said the city will ask for bids on the project, and bring it back to the City Council in the coming weeks.


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