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The 411 on the new 911

Onondaga County is taking on the largest public safety project in more than 15 years. The current 911 communications system is being replaced by a newer, sophisticated, digitally computerized network expected to roll out within two years.

"We voted on it. We approved it," said County Legislator (10th district) Kevin Holmquist, who is also the former chair of the public safety committee. The legislature passed the $34 million effort in December.

The 911 Center currently operates on multiple channels. Throughout the county, police, fire and other emergency agencies use different frequencies and bandwidths to communicate. This can sometimes create a problem for first responders to a crisis.

"City police and county police who are on different frequencies cannot communicate with each other without us trying to patch things together electronically," said 911 Commissioner John Balloni.

What that means is that the 911 dispatcher is taking the conversation on one end and then re-transmitting it on another frequency.

"There's a delay," Balloni said. "There's usually static, and it becomes very difficult to understand. Sometimes it allows us to get by, but it's not the ideal way to operate."

The new system will streamline communication by using 15 pairs of frequencies that are all in the same UHF range. This will enable multiple agencies to speak directly to one another if needed.

"It's like a conference call except the participants are sort of unlimited," Balloni said. "And it's done on one giant county-wide network."

That network requires 15 towers, 12 of which already exist, spread throughout the county to help in eliminating dead spots, like with cell phones, often encountered when in remote or rural areas where coverage is inconsistent.

"That will always happen with radio frequency communication," Balloni said. "But the new system will much better fill the county so that for 97 percent of the area, roughly, you're going to get good mobile communications."

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