WAHOO — Most first responders in Saunders County agree that the county-wide emergency radio system needs an upgrade, and the Saunders County Board of Supervisors last August approved a contract with Motorola to convert the county’s current single-channel system to a multichannel one.
The new system will operate within the Omaha Regional Interoperability Network (ORION) that is supposed to expand radio channel capacity and improve coverage throughout the county.
But many local fire and law enforcement departments’ lone hang-up on the project is the price they will each have to pay for the radios required to communicate within the new system. The county is expected to front the cost for the local fire and law enforcement departments, and the departments are to pay the county back over time.
The nearly 300 handheld and mounted radios, plus accessories, were outlined in the Motorola contract to cost more than $2.6 million. The county was eligible to receive a $250,000 incentive on the radios, bringing the price down to $2.35 million.
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The number of radios needed for each department varies, but most departments are estimated to require at least 10 portable radios and several mounted radios to be installed in vehicles. The portable radios — Motorola APX6000s — cost more than $6,000 apiece.
But when Wahoo Mayor Jerry Johnson told the board at its March 14 meeting about an opportunity to potentially alleviate the cost of the radios, the board was quick to act.
Johnson explained the federal Community Project Funding program that allows U.S. representatives to submit up to 15 local shovel-ready projects to be considered for federal dollars. Johnson learned of the program during a webinar with U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, whose district now includes Saunders County.
Wahoo had no shovel-ready projects that could receive funding through the program, but Johnson thought the county’s radio project would be eligible. Johnson said projects that have received funding tend to call for between $3 million and $4 million.
Johnson said, however, that projects already receiving government funding would not be eligible for additional funds. The county has committed a large portion of the $4 million it received from the American Rescue Plan Act toward the radio project. But Johnson suggested the county may be able to distinguish the purchasing of radios as a separate project.
“(Johnson) brought it to the meeting, and we thought, ‘Well, heck yes,’” said Board Member Bill Reece at the March 21 board meeting. “If we can get a couple million dollars to offset the cost of these mobile and portable radios, that would be (great).”
The application window was short, opening on March 9 and closing on March 17. But Reece, who is the board’s liaison to the Southeast Nebraska Development District, worked quickly with SENDD to compile an application.
Reece said the application asked for $2.3 million, which represents about 21% of the total radio project, and is lower than the typical $3-4 million granted to projects through Community Project Funding.
“So I think we’re kind of in the sweet spot,” Reece said. “And why wouldn’t Don Bacon, as a new representative to this area, want to make a splash?”
Board Member John Smaus said the looming need to purchase radios weighs heavily on local fire and law enforcement departments.
“There’s still a lot of departments out there that can’t afford this and are really trying to budget this, so this would be a really nice gift,” he said.
Bacon’s deadline to choose which projects would be submitted for possible federal funding was March 24. As of print deadline, there had been no announcement from his office listing the projects he selected.