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In its continuing effort to upgrade its communications system, the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office (JCSO) is seeking nearly $1.5 million from the state to redo the network and give the office state-of-the-art capabilities.
“This is something we've been trying to do for years,” Sheriff Mac McNeill told the Jefferson County Commission on Thursday evening, Oct. 3, when he asked the board to approve an emergency resolution supporting his department's bid for the state funding.
“If we get this money, it will give us digital capability and countywide coverage,” he added.
McNeill conceded that the action was a gambit. On the one hand, he said, it would cost $7,500 to have Langston Consulting prepare the grant application for submission. On the other, he noted, the department stood to receive nearly $1.5 million in state funding for the purchase and installation of a new system if it were successful.
The commission approved the measure and expenditure without hesitation.
Joe Garrison, the JCSO's communications supervisor, expounded a little more on the issue last week. He explained that the money the JCSO is seeking is part of $25 million that the Florida Division of Emergency Management (FDEM) made available in early September to communities affected by Hurricane Michael. The funding, per the FDEM, can be used for projects related to hurricane repair and recovery efforts stemming from Michael.
Among the allowable activities listed under the $25 million Hurricane Michael State Recovery Grant Program – itself part of a $220.9-million package that legislators approved for recovery efforts in the 11 Panhandle counties impacted by Hurricane Michael – is infrastructure repair and replacement.
Garrison said that if the county was successful in getting the funding, it would allow for the complete revamping of the communications system, including installing a new a 300 to 320-foot tower in the Aucilla Shores area and reconfiguring the present tower at the jail. As well as allowing for the acquisition of vehicle and handheld radios, he said.
The upgrade, he said, would essentially allow all the county's emergency services, as well as the road department and other city and county entities, to tie into the system.
“The infrastructure would all be there,” Garrison said.
“The system,” he continued, “would go to a digital platform and transmit through microwave radio waves. It would be a completely different system from today. It would eliminate the holes that we currently have south of Wacissa and in other parts of the county. It would give us coverage all the way into the Gulf.”
Poor radio communications in remote areas of the county has been a longstanding problem of the JCSO, putting deputies at risk when they are out of range in the field.
Upgrading to the next generation system has long been considered the ideal solution, according to law-enforcement experts. The problem, however, is that such a system has proven cost prohibitive for a county the size of Jefferson.
In the interim, the department has sought to alleviate the communications problem through alternative methods. Last year, for example, the JCSO applied to the FCC for a new frequency so that it could reprogram the operation's 150 radios accordingly. Once reprogrammed, Garrison said, the radios – especially the handheld ones – would be able to push through the interference and connect with the base so that deputies could stay connected.
“It's a bandaid, but it's a good bandaid,” Garrison said at the time.
The money for the latter short-term solution, estimated to cost between $25,000 and $28,000, came from the communications trust fund, an account that derives its funding from a $12.50 surcharge that is imposed on every traffic citation issued in the county. Use of this money is limited to the purchase of equipment for the communication needs of the emergency response services