By Mark Waite
Motorola advised Nye County in 2005 there could be problems with a VHF sheriff’s department radio system but the county decided to go ahead with it anyway, outgoing Nye County Information Technology Director Mark Hatfield told commissioners Tuesday.
The $6 million Nye County spent on updated radio equipment is obsolete, meaning software updates aren’t available, maintenance or replacement of parts, too, Hatfield said. It led to talk of abandoning the truncated system and using the old conventional radio system still in place. It doesn’t include microwave linkups to other radios in the county, or to the state system.
Commissioner Joni Eastley remarked, “this is the first time in a commission meeting in 12 years I felt like bursting into tears.”
“Keep going, this is like pulling a band-aid off slowly,” Commissioner Lorinda Wichman said as Hatfield made his presentation.
In 2005, Nye County entered into a $3.6 million contract with Motorola, which increased to $3.9 million with a $327,000 change order. In 2006, the county entered into a $2 million contract with Harris Corporation to purchase a microwave system to connect the north and south county signals, Hatfield said.
“All of the equipment that’s part of the microwave system is manufacturer discontinued,” he said. “That means we can’t buy it any more and they won’t maintain it.”
The vision of a trunk radio system to have countywide radio coverage isn’t a reality, Hatfield said.
“The system in Pahrump has been plagued by background interference from Valley Electric Association power lines,” Hatfield said.
Deputies can’t get reception inside buildings like the Pahrump Nugget Casino or Walmart, even the new jail, he said.
“The VHF radio system doesn’t work in Pahrump. Motorola said it’s never going to work the way you envisioned them,” Hatfield said.
He suggested that turning off the trunk system, saving a $173,000 maintenance contract with Motorola, $21,000 in licensing fees, $20,000 in rack space rentals with the state and an $11,000 leased phone line to Smoky Valley, may be among the county’s best options at the moment.
The county could join the state system that the Nevada Highway Patrol, Nevada Department of Transportation and NV Energy uses, Hatfield suggested, but that would require buying all new radios at a cost of at least $1.2 million. Many of the county repeater sites have state equipment next to them, he said.
Wichman remarked county sheriff’s deputies could use cell phones, though Hatfield said, “the way that they work is not conducive to cell phone technology.”
“There is no perfect radio system, really there isn’t. I wish there was, there isn’t,” DeMeo said. “I gave the county solutions on the hand-held way out in the netherworld, in order for these deputies to work.”
Eastley said the sheriff’s department also has to record communications.
The 2005 purchase of equipment from Motorola wasn’t actually placed into service until 2011, Hatfield said.
“Motorola said they’re willing to bring their engineers in here at no cost to see if they can look at the system. I think we have an obligation to try to fix it. Nobody is optimistic it’s going to work the way it’s supposed to work,” he said. “We have to make a reasonable effort to try to remediate the system to try to fix it before we turn it off but it could be another $500,000.”
In February, Nye County received a loan of 48 radios on an 800 megahertz frequency to see if there was better coverage, now the Southern Nevada Area Communications Council SNACC want the radios back, Hatfield said.
The 800 megahertz radios wouldn’t work north of Pahrump where there aren’t the repeater stations, Hatfield said. It would cost $185 per radio per year, or about $80,000, for Nye County to activate the 800 megahertz radios if it chose to simply buy them used from SNACC, he said, adding the new 800 mhz radios themselves will cost $4,000 each, so it’d cost $280,000.
“If we make the commitment to go with 800 megahertz radios because they work better in Pahrump, you cannot take them up to Beatty because they will not work,” Hatfield said. The agreement with Motorola was signed Aug. 1, 2007 by Nye County Sheriffs Lt. Jack Hennigan and Sheriff Tony DeMeo, Hatfield said.
“We have been notified and advised this could be problematic and we went with the hit anyways. Motorola said we advised you there was a problem and you decided to proceed anyways,” he said.
DeMeo said he just did a radio check to every unit on the trunk system and got through; he said during a recent hostage incident he was able to talk with Las Vegas. Hatfield said that was impossible, the trunk system in Tonopah was physically turned off.
Hennigan said he wasn’t told of any time limit when the sheriff’s department was given the new radios.
Transmitter sites have to be repaired, Hatfield said, like $10,000 in repairs to Sawtooth Mountain near Rhyolite, which he called the most unreliable microwave link in the system. Motorola said it would cost $80,000 to replace that satellite link. Nye County pays $8,000 per month to lease the site, he said, but upon questioning, said there’s other vendors with antennas, like cell phone companies.
Hennigan said it’d cost enormous amounts of money to build a new tower on Sawtooth Mountain, but Hatfield said it would only cost $400,000.
“Some of those sites and these microwave dishes were installed before I took office,” DeMeo said.
“Motorola never pointed out they were poor sites to us,” he said.
“The reason we went to VHF if you remember is that Nye County has a very large area,” the sheriff said.
A conversion to 800 megahertz radios, he said, would’ve cost over $10 million back in 2003-2004; the county didn’t have the appetite for that.
The trunk radio system in Tonopah is located on Mount Brock on wooden telephone poles, one of which fell over, and the other lost its antenna, Hatfield said. Motorola will remount the antenna but Nye County has to provide an adequate structure that Hatfield estimated will cost $20,000.
“There’s also a radio frequency problem in Tonopah,” Hatfield said.
Nye County did a poor job obtaining frequencies for Amargosa Valley, which interfere with Pahrump’s frequency, he said.
Motorola didn’t recommend installing a tower on Montezuma Peak, between Tonopah and Goldfield, he said.
Hatfield said Nye County has $60,000 in lease agreements in six locations with the state of Nevada for tower space, Eastley said she’s never seen those agreements.
Transmission in Smoky Valley is limited, Hatfield said, it would cost $327,000 to build a site up on Shoshone Mountain. Hennigan said the county had height restrictions there due to the airport.
When it comes to the conventional radio system, Hatfield said a lease with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management for right-of-way to the Johnnie repeater site, will affect other users as well. That site needs to be repaired at a cost of $24,000, he said.
Of the approximately 20 conventional repeater sites, Hatfield said, “I found them all to be in various states of disrepair. A lot of them need new antennas. As far as I know there’s been no preventive maintenance.”
A conventional system only provides coverage in the area around the repeater; it doesn’t allow deputies in Pahrump to communicate with deputies in Tonopah, he said.
Commissioner Gary Hollis inquired if anyone else had equipment on the county’s sites. Hatfield said Utilities Inc. has equipment at a site on the west side of Pahrump.
“It was explained to me Utilities Inc. was given a 10-year lease to put equipment at our tower and in exchange for that they put a fence around the site,” Hatfield said.
Air Internet, a local Internet provider, has space on the site, in return for doing tower maintenance and changing light bulbs, he said.
Eastley implied that may be illegal.
“Nobody can enter into any kind of contractual agreement with anyone except commissioners and I hope everybody realizes that,” she said. The sheriff’s department moved a repeater site to the west side of Pahrump so they wouldn’t have to pay rent to the TV station and receive the poor coverage, Hennigan said.
DeMeo said the sheriff’s department has simulcast coverage, with two towers sending overlapping signals in Pahrump.
“We get a lot of interference from the electrical transmission lines,” DeMeo said. “If you have on your AM radio and you pass under a transmission line, that’s what’s happening to the radios.”
The problems with the system are on top of a Federal Communications Commission mandate back in 2007 that licenses be fully operational on narrow band channels by Jan. 1, 2013. The sheriff’s office will need about $40,000 in new base stations and repeaters, Hatfield said.
The state is abandoning its VHF system rather than pay the cost of converting to narrow band, he said. It will also result in a 30 percent reduction in coverage.
Wichman joked, “We’ll continue to patch everything with telephone poles, bailing wire and bubble gum.”