Loud And Clear

MAYVILLE – The largest grant ever received by the Chautauqua County Sheriff’s Office is expected help the county update its lagging communication system.

The county was awarded the unprecedented grant through the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services totaling $6 million, the maximum amount. The money will be used to update the county’s long-since outdated radio system used by police, fire and state emergency officials.

Sheriff Joe Gerace, who chairs the county Radio Communications Advisory Committee, was made aware of the grant award earlier this week. He said the radio system will be upgraded at some point this year to fall in line with new state regulations.

“This is exciting, and the fact that the money is not coming from the backs of local taxpayers is even more rewarding,” Gerace told The Post-Journal on Thursday. “… For the Sheriff’s Office, this is the largest grant we have ever seen, as far as I can tell.”

The county for years has looked into upgrading its outdated radio communication system, but setbacks and costs have slowed progress. The County Legislature in 1995 began funding a full-blown conversion of its communication system, which included installing microwave loops.

However, as the county began its implementation, the state in 2000 announced it was developing a wireless network of its own. The legislature stopped its funding, and the advisory committee turned its attention to partnering with the state.

State officials, though, later dropped the plan after lukewarm results in Erie and Chautauqua counties, although Gerace said the system tested would have been a major upgrade here.

The Federal Communications Commission required this year that all public and business radio systems be reduced, or narrowbanded. The requirement was done to eliminate outdated and inefficient technology. The county secured a year-long waiver as it sought a new system.

The grant should help bring the county in line with the new mandates, Gerace said. Once installed, fire and police officials from across the county will have the ability to communicate on one platform.

“We’re going to make it happen this year, no matter what,” Gerace said, praising Matt Trusso, communications project coordinator with the Sheriff’s Office, in writing the 100-page grant application. “I cannot say enough of him. He did a superb job getting us this funding.”

The county last year unsuccessfully applied for a similar – yet smaller – grant to update the radio system. County Executive Greg Edwards was tipped off on Tuesday that the county had secured the funding this time around. The excitement level was palpable.

“I enjoyed every second it took me to digitize the letter and send it over to the sheriff,” Edwards said. “They have put in so much time and effort and they never gave up.”

The county executive said without the grant, the county likely would have turned to raising property taxes to offset the required upgrade. Securing the funding without turning to taxpayers for the state-mandated upgrade was essential, Edwards said.

“Dollar for dollar you cannot overstate its importance,” he said.

Fire officials, too, are happy to see the grant come through. Charlie Smith, Chautauqua County deputy fire coordinator for technical rescue, said the upgrade has been sorely needed for decades. With 42 fire departments in the county, communication is vital, he said.

“Saying it’s been overdue is putting it mildly,” Smith quipped. “But it’s a good start and should cover most of the costs for the county.”

Smith said some components of the county’s current system are utilizing technology from the 1950s. Gerace over the summer went as far as saying the system was being held by “wires and ducktape.”

“We have done some upgrades over the years, but we’re using a lot of old technology that isn’t being used anymore,” Smith said. “This new system should help bring fire and police together.”

Gerace said a request for proposal is out for the installation of a narrowbanded radio system. The bids are expected within a few weeks, and the grant is expected cover the county’s end of the upgrade.

“I look at it this way: we are going to build the highway. It’s up to everyone else to buy the cars to drive on it,” Gerace said, noting the Sheriff’s Office will seek additional grants to purchase radios to work with the new system.

The Jamestown Police Department last year took out a $1 million bond, more than half of which will go toward the purchase of new radios for city fire and police officers.

“The biggest thing with all of this is the interoperability we will have with fire and police from one end of the county to the other,” Gerace said. “This has been needed for two decades.”