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Jun 13, 2017 7:11 AMPublication: The Southampton Press

Town, Villages, Fire Departments In East Hampton In Line For Multimillion-Dollar Upgrade To Communications Equipment

Communications equipment for all of the East Hampton's police, fire, ambulance and public service personnel will be replaced next year, at a cost of more than $7 million. Michael Wright
Jun 14, 2017 8:59 AM

East Hampton Town, East Hampton Village, Sag Harbor Village and the region's fire and ambulance departments will spend more than $8 million over the next two years to replace all of the town's emergency communications equipment.

Officials say that the current communications network, now in its 20th year in service, is starting to experience technical failures, and that finding replacements for failed components is increasingly difficult.

On two occasions this spring the Montauk Fire Department lost all of its communications, with local 911 dispatchers and with its volunteer firemen, for several hours. The blackouts were caused by failed components of the department's 800 megahertz radio system at the Montauk Firehouse. East Hampton Village Police sent a mobile communications van to the firehouse to serve as a stop-gap while East Hampton Town Police technicians scrambled to get the system back up and running—which they were able to do with the last spare the town had for the failed part.

By a stroke of luck, the blackout episodes did not coincide with any dire emergencies, and the system has been functioning since, but the hiccup highlighted the risks of the aging network's problems.

"I try to order a part and they say they don't have it," said Eddie Schnell, the communications technician for the East Hampton Town Police Department. "They'll say send us the part and we'll try to fix it. The only way to get parts is second-hand, but we can't do that because of state procurement rules. I can't go on eBay to get parts."

The new radios would also allow more emergency crews to communicate with one another during an emergency than the current system does—a shortcoming that was highlighted during the Main Street fire in Sag Harbor last winter to which more than a dozen fire departments responded.

"We have five channels now, that lets four people talk at one time," Mr. Schnell said. "During the Sag Harbor fire we had a hundred people trying to talk to each other. The new system would allow seven channels but also … the digital technology lets two people talk on each channel at once, so you double the capacity."

The town is expected to sign a contract with Motorola this summer to purchase a new digital communications system, for close to $6 million, that it says will also expand the ability of various departments to communicate with one another in large-scale emergencies like last December's fire in Sag Harbor. Supervisor Larry Cantwell said the town will likely pay for the new system through a bond that will spread the cost to taxpayers over 10 or 15 years.

Much as when Optimum went to a digital broadcast and all of its customers had to replace their cable boxes, or install cable boxes where they weren't previously needed, the town's decision to switch to a digital system will force all of the other departments that link to its communications—from firefighters to lifeguards—to switch over as well.

East Hampton Village Administrator Rebecca Molinaro said the village, whose police department handles the 911 dispatching for the entire town and Sag Harbor Village, has estimated its costs for the digital upgrade to be about $1.5 million. Ms. Molinaro said the village, which delayed the approval of its 2017-18 budget to later this week to get a better idea of what the costs for the communications upgrades would be, hopes not to have to borrow to cover the expense, or to do so minimally if necessary.

Sag Harbor Village, whose police and fire departments are dispatched through East Hampton, as well as the Springs Fire Department, Amagansett Fire Department and Montauk Fire Department, are also looking at costs in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace dozens of hand-held radios carried by police and firefighters and the mobile radios in emergency response vehicles.

Springs Fire District Commissioner Pat Glennon said this week that his department, the most financially sensitive in the town, will likely have to replace about 50 hand-held and mobile radios, which cost between $2,900 and $3,500 each.

Mr. Schnell has told the departments that some short-term costs could be saved by doing software updates to some of the current radios, but that discounts of as high as 35 percent being offered by Motorola for a one-time upgrade across the township would be lost if departments put off full replacements.

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