Unlike Pottstown, Neighbor Still Considering Radios

POTTSTOWN PA – Pottstown borough council said “no.” Collegeville’s borough council followed suit.

But unlike those municipalities that have already stated a preference, Lower Pottsgrove (PA) Township has so far decided not to decide if it favors a complete overhaul of, an upgrade to, or a simple re-banding within Montgomery County’s police radio dispatch equipment.

The Board of Commissioners, during its only meeting this month, deferred offering an official opinion on work that if approved may cost the township $109,000 or more. The county wants an answer from the board by August, and with time on their side commissioners indicated they would think the matter over.

Manager Rodney Hawthorne and Police Chief Michael Shade have already aired their thoughts on the subject. They opt for an upgrade, in which the township would replace its officers’ antiquated handheld radios – 17 of them to start, at a cost of about $6,400 each (reduced from an earlier estimate of $7,000) – with newer, more powerful and efficient models.

“I think the upgrade’s the way to go,” Shade repeated during the board’s July 7 meeting. “It’s a step into the next generation of equipment. What we’ve got now is pretty outdated.”

The county has been ordered by the Federal Communications Commission to adjust how its police and emergency radio dispatch system operates. The change is primarily due to the unprecedented growth of cell phones and other mobile technology that uses much of the same bandwidth, or frequencies, the radios do.

Facing a federal deadline in April, the county chose the least expensive option of re-banding, or changing frequencies. Many police chiefs, including Shade, worry re-banding will create potential communication and safety hazards in the future.

Replacing the entire system, at a countywide cost of $120 million, is too pricey, elected leaders contend. Upgrading for about $50 million seems easier on taxpayers’ wallets, they claim, and addresses safety concerns too.

Even with an upgrade, though, some local governments have already announced they’re unwilling to afford the cost. Both Pottstown and Collegeville rejected the upgrade option in council votes last week.

Board members are expected to see the radio item on their agendas again during August (2011) meetings. If they accept the upgrade, the county also wants to know if Lower Pottsgrove would choose to buy the handhelds or lease them over a 10-year period; commissioners earlier made it clear they considered leasing too expensive.