New ‘rugged phones’ will bring Piscataquis emergency response system out of the 1960s

DOVER-FOXCROFT — Piscataquis County officials are hoping new technology will help emergency responders communicate better while saving thousands of dollars a month.

Personnel will experiment with push-to-talk radios, or so-called rugged phones, to see if the equipment can remedy longstanding problems with reception and coverage.

Jaeme Duggan, the county’s emergency management agency director, proposed a six-month trial period where the county would partner with T-Mobile and acquire 10 to 20 free devices for emergency responders. The trial, approved by county commissioners Tuesday, is part of a larger overhaul of the county’s outdated infrastructure and could save Piscataquis around $10,000 a month.

If the new devices provide strong coverage, they could be an alternative to leasing space on three cellular towers, each costing $3,000 to $4,000 a month, Duggan said. 

“If we start to use [the devices] and find that this is a viable option, it could be a way to offset that $10,000 a month in tower rental fees,” she said. “We don’t know without trying. In the meantime, it could be a stopgap measure just to help us get through the 24 months until the radio system is up and running.”

Her department has found through its own testing of the phones that coverage has been remarkable, even in areas notorious for lacking signals, she told commissioners during a meeting Tuesday.

The devices are essentially military-spec phones that cost $20 a month per activated device and are water- and dust-resistant, she said. Police and fire personnel could also import their phone numbers and use a smartphone version as their personal phones, she said.

On the devices, emergency responders can press a yellow button and speak with each other, similar to a two-way radio. They would use the devices to communicate about water supply while responding to a fire, for instance, or traffic control during an accident.

Since the county first started pursuing a radio communications overhaul last year, money and time have become major stumbling blocks. County officials anticipated increasing costs because the project is big — perhaps the county’s biggest — undertaking to remedy long-running issues for fire and police departments that have trouble communicating, especially in hilly and mountainous terrain, Duggan said. 

A major problem is that the current system was designed in the 1960s to fit the needs of technology from that era, according to a consulting group hired to study the county’s system. But today’s technology and diverse communication needs require a substantial upgrade. 

The project wouldn’t be completed for another year or two because of ongoing construction and material backlogs related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the meantime, Duggan’s department is looking into alternatives to the tower rental fees and funding sources, which is how the T-Mobile proposal came about. The company wanted Piscataquis to use its towers, but because there aren’t any towers available for use in the area, representatives offered push-to-talk devices instead, Duggan said.

Not many public safety departments are using the equipment in the United States, but it’s popular on pipelines and for fighting wildfires out west, Duggan said. One search and rescue department in Tennessee, where the mountainous terrain is similar to Piscataquis County, relies on the devices, she said.

The county could choose to integrate the devices into the county’s overall radio system and have them monitored by dispatch, though it would cost from $1,500 to $3,000 to install the necessary equipment, Duggan said.

The commissioners said earlier this year that they would dedicate American Rescue Plan Act funds to the radio communications upgrades. Commissioners paid an engineering consultant $27,000 for a feasibility study, which was presented in November 2021.

Another piece of the project is the relocation of the dispatch center from cramped conditions in the Piscatquis County Jail into the administrative unit of the sheriff’s office, which is facing delays. Commissioners had put that project out to bid twice to attract more affordable contractors, and decided Tuesday to try again in the fall to see if material prices come down.

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