EAGLEVILLE, PA – On Tuesday, December 8, 2020, the Montgomery County Department of Public Safety, in coordination with hundreds of partner agencies and with funding and support from the County Commissioners, successfully completed a transition to a new countywide 700/800 MHz radio communications system. The following day, at approximately 12 p.m., Director of Public Safety Thomas M. Sullivan made the announcement over all channels on the legacy system that it had been officially decommissioned.
“This transition is the culmination of thousands of hours of design, planning, preparation, and testing by our County staff, partner organizations, and contractors,” said Director Sullivan. “This new radio system will be a key asset in keeping Montgomery County residents and first responders safe for many years to come.”
Consistent with technology at the time of installation, the legacy system utilized hardline business class Verizon T1 connections between communications towers and was vulnerable to rodent chews, tears during utility and street excavations, and water infiltration into cables. To remedy these problems, tower sites in the new system are connected by public safety grade wireless microwave transmitters and receivers.
The new system features ten additional tower sites strategically located across the County, bringing the total number to 30. This expansion allows for both increased redundancy and capacity. Instead of existing as stand-alone sites, the towers are now situated in two rings, east and west, that provide each site with two points of access to the system. The rings are self-recovering in event of a rare interruption in one direction, typically momentary lapses due to unusually severe weather. Even in this case, field users will not experience any degradation in service as the microwave system is designed to automatically divert communications in the opposite direction around the ring.
The new system also provides expanded capacity, allowing for more than twice the amount of simultaneous transmissions between field users when compared to the legacy system. In addition, there are more frequencies available for use, allowing Department of Public Safety Emergency Communications Center (ECC) staff to assign additional interoperable talkgroups, allowing for seamless interdisciplinary communications during complex and evolving emergencies and planned events.
Yet another advantage of the new system is the ability to provide non-contact, over-the-air programming of user radios by Department of Public Safety technicians. The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the need to minimize close contact between critical employees who maintain the County radio system and field users and vehicles, many of whom and which are regularly exposed to individuals with infectious diseases, such as COVID-19.
Furthermore, the new system allows Department of Public Safety staff to dispatch from the back-up Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) at the Public Safety Training Campus in Plymouth Township, creating, for the first time, a truly redundant secondary PSAP. On the legacy system, Department staff could answer 9-1-1 and 10-digit calls from the back-up center and communicate via portable radio but could not dispatch incidents in the traditional sense.
On Tuesday, December 8, 2020, the transition began at 6 a.m., as police dispatch zones were switched to the new system, console by console. To ensure seamless communications with emergency responders, telecommunicators at the back-up site covered each zone while equipment was switched out in the ECC. In addition, Field Comm 1 and Field Comm 3 stood by at the Emergency Operations Center (EOC), providing another level of redundancy in the event technicians encountered an unexpected error or difficulty during the transition. After each zone was moved to the new system, ECC staff performed a roll call of every on-duty police officer on new system channels to ensure that each had safely and successfully made the switch.
By 12 p.m., all 52 police departments across 12 dispatch zones, as well as CASE and relief positions, had been transferred to the new system. In the early afternoon, all 19 Montgomery County Emergency Medical Services (EMS) agencies made the switch, followed shortly afterwards by the more than 90 fire companies and departments. There was no loss of continuity during the transition, as communications for ongoing incidents were allowed to continue on the legacy system. By 3 p.m., all agencies had been transferred to the new system, and at 4:18 p.m. the announcement was made that the legacy system would no longer be monitored by the ECC.
After the decommissioning of the legacy system on December 9, 2020, any user that attempts to switch his or her radio to legacy system channels will receive a constant audible “bonk” tone and will be unable to transmit. Over the next several months, Department staff will work to remove these legacy system frequencies from the more than 10,000 mobile and portable radios currently in the field. Individuals who monitor scanners as a hobby or for business will need to reprogram their scanners in order to hear fire and EMS incidents on the new radio system.