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Kent County tackles dispatch upgrades ahead of millage vote
Commissioners believe funding proposal will be on November ballot.
Significant upgrades to the Kent County dispatch system could be on the way.
First, the Kent County Board of Commissioners needs to fully understand the upgrades to place a millage proposal on the November ballot, said Jim Saalfeld, Kent County board chair.
Initially, the board was slated to get the proposal on the August ballot, but for that to happen, the board would need to approve it by the end of April.
The issue, it turns out, is far too complex, with too many questions to be answered before then.
“We are aware there is this need that’s out there,” Saalfeld said. “This particular issue is one of the most complex issues I’ve dealt with — many moving parts and areas where costs pop up, and changes in technology.
“What we need to do now is get all the answers to all these questions that will come up. The commissioners have been very interested in making sure we’re not asking for anything more than what’s truly essential.”
The county has listened to the Kent County Sheriff’s Department throughout the years as it has requested updates, Undersheriff Michelle Young said. Many of the requests are for technology updates for 911 services.
Some investments in upgrades have been made, but Young said some technology that currently is sufficient will need upgrading before long, such as the phone system. The Next Generation 911 transition is similar to a house transitioning from a traditional land line, she said.
Costs are dynamic for all of these projects, Young said, but she mentioned updating the phone system to current compliance levels will require nearly $1 million a year for maintenance.
“There is an evolution that needs to happen within the next few years,” Young said. “Right now, it’s all analog and it has some downfalls.”
Next Generation 911 allows those in emergency situations to text, as well as call.
The main problem is the amount of money that will go into the upgrades, Young said, but there also is a substantial amount of planning that has to take place to efficiently make the transition. She said planning and coordination for the updates is well underway, as evidenced by the changes that already have been implemented.
Another major piece of the infrastructure that needs updating is the radio system, Young said. The system is 30 years old. Although some pieces have been upgraded over the years, the basic structure is outdated.
Although the radio system is operational and avoids outages most of the time, Young said the system can’t handle multiple large-scale events, even something as simple as the Grand Rapids Marathon. She added that the system is not set up for events like presidential rallies, which necessitate radio trading with the units coming in to assist at those events.
Young said the goal is to transition to the statewide radio system, which has seen significant upgrades in the past two years and is better set up to manage dynamic situations.
“Our radio is something we make work, but it’s not as effective as it could be,” she said. “Our job is to plan forward, and these are going to be things that pop up.”
Saalfeld said the commission needs to plan for the future, as well, because a piece of technology that is state-of-the-art today can be obsolete in five years, so getting to the next generation platform is important.
He said the county could nickel and dime some solutions, but that would cause more issues down the line, so the county is doing what it can do to make sure its residents aren’t shortchanged.
“This is a meaty issue and we need time to dig through,” Saalfeld said. “We are very cognizant of public safety and want to ensure that a permanent funding stream is addressed in the long term but we want to request what’s truly necessary.”