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Hawkins requests cost estimate for state's TACN emergency radio system

Jeff Bobo • Feb 13, 2020 at 11:30 AM

ROGERSVILLE — Hawkins County leaders will explore two potential remedies for its failing emergency radio system which have potential price ranges separated not only by millions of dollars but also by longevity and potential effectiveness.

Following a lengthy discussion Wednesday afternoon, the county commission’s Public Safety Committee (PSC) voted unanimously to request a countywide emergency radio assessment and cost estimate for the implementation of the Tennessee Advanced Communications Network (TACN) system.

TACN is the system used by the Tennessee Department of Safety, including the Tennessee Highway Patrol, and Motorola Solutions is the statewide infrastructure provider for it.

Motorola representative Scott Tidwell told the PSC Wednesday he could have a study completed in 3-4 weeks that would tell commissioners what is needed to give the county the best possible radio coverage using TACN and how much it will cost.

However, Tidwell wouldn’t offer a ballpark estimate on how much he thinks the system might cost Hawkins County.

Emergency Management Agency Director Jamie Miller told the committee that based on what counties of similar size have paid for the TACN system, Hawkins County would probably be looking at a minimum of $3.3 million to implement TACN.

A much less expensive alternative

The PSC also voted to seek an estimate from Knoxville-based Metro Communications for a replacement of the current system with similar equipment. The current cost estimate is significantly lower, at slightly less than $250,000 for a turn-key system.

However, that replacement system is considered by many first responders — and county commissioners — to be inadequate and only a short-term solution.

Miller noted that if the county replaces the current system, it would likely need additional antenna locations to cover areas where service isn’t available, so the current cost estimate is probably low.

Committee chairman Dawson Fields noted that because some members of the task force voted to recommend a replacement of the current system, the panel owed it to them to at least explore that option further.

Metro Communications Vice President Jimmy Hayes told the PSC he could have a cost analysis completed within three weeks.

Although the Motorola study is free, the Metro Communications study would cost up to $1,500. The PSC agreed that it was worth the extra expense to have all the available information before making such a critical decision.

Task force majority recommends TACN

Hawkins County’s emergency radio system went down three times between November and December and is currently operating on backup equipment, with no more backup equipment available.

For the past month, a task force of first responders and emergency radio experts has been meeting to work on options for improving the failing system.

After four meetings of about three hours each, the task force was asked to rank its top three potential solutions based on performance, without letting cost affect its decision.

The top recommendation was TACN. Miller noted that more than half of the votes for TACN were either past or current TACN users.

The second and third choices were a tie: replacing the current system with analog sites; and the DMR (Digital Mobile Radio) system, which had previously been discussed as a feasible option at an estimated cost of $723,459.

Miller noted, however, that DMR might not work in Hawkins County due to its inability to utilize certain frequencies.

The upside of TACN

Tidwell told the PSC that TACN is the system used by the Tennessee Department of Safety, including the Tennessee Highway Patrol.

The state has an agreement with Motorola to upgrade the system’s software and hardware every two years at no additional cost, and any unexpected repairs or replacement of equipment is included in that agreement.

The downside is the cost. Hawkins County will need at least 700 radios. The lower-end radios cost a little less than $2,000 each, while mid-range ones are $3,500 and high-end ones are around $6,000.

The TACN system will also take 9-14 months to implement, Tidwell added. Another downside is that each radio requires a $200 annual state fee.

However, once the system is in place and paid for, Tidwell estimated that Hawkins County would have a reliable system with no new expenses for up to 30 years.

“I just want something that works”

The county commission meeting room in the Hawkins County Courthouse was filled for Wednesday’s PSC meeting, mostly with sheriff’s deputies and other first responders. 

Sheriff Ronnie Lawson told the committee that first responders need a radio system they can rely on.

“I just want something that works,” he said. “Something that doesn’t jeopardize the first responders in this county anymore. The last big shutdown we had on the radio system jeopardized about 20-something officers out on a very serious homicide case tactical operation. I think we need to get a system that we can use in this county where all officers can hear each other and not have a problem.”

Lawson added, “I understand you’re going to have dead spots in Hawkins County, but we can do better. What we need to do is not jeopardize our first responders and the job that they’re trying to do to protect us.”

“Where’s the money going to come from?”

Initially, the PSC voted solely to seek the Motorola recommendation.

Following that vote, however, Commissioner Rick Brewer, who is not on the PSC, spoke from the audience, urging the committee to consider a less expensive option as well.

Brewer compared the PSC’s study on the TACN system to him shopping for a Rolls Royce that he knows he can’t afford.

Brewer told the room full of deputies, “I told the sheriff this. If we have to spend $400,000 per year for a radio system, where’s your raise gone? You guys are working for practically nothing now. Where’s that money going to come from?”

Brewer suggested that the committee might consider the quarter-million-dollar replacement now, with the goal of saving toward an eventual TACN upgrade.

Following Brewer’s comments, the panel voted to seek a cost estimate from Metro Communications as well.

A video of the hour-long PSC meeting can be seen in the online version of this article at www.timesnews.net.