OTTAWA COUNTY — Ottawa County's first responders, law enforcement and other public safety officials are celebrating the installation and rollout of a brand-new, $14.2 million radio communications system for the county.


Public safety agencies in the county made the switch earlier this year to the new 800 megahertz system. The system became fully operational in February.


Peter McWatters, executive director of the Ottawa County Central Dispatch Authority, said the new system is the "gold standard" in radio communications.


"It provides better coverage than what we had under the old system, it allows for better quality transmissions," McWatters said in a video news conference with reporters. "... The signal quality and the voice quality is better than the old system."


The switch-over involved installing new radio consoles at Ottawa County’s dispatch center, new radio towers and about 2,000 new portable radios for fire, law enforcement and EMTs throughout the county.


The 800 MHz system puts Ottawa County on the same system as the Michigan State Police and other state emergency management agencies. Allegan County uses the 800 MHz system and nearby Kent and Muskegon counties are in the process of making the same transition, which will make communicating between county law enforcement and fire agencies much easier, officials said.


"It's very crucial for us to be able to communicate with everybody that surrounds Ottawa County," said Ottawa County Sheriff Steve Kempker.


"The old way was the car would call it in, the dispatcher was on the phone with the dispatcher in the other county, then that dispatcher's relaying it on to that county car," Kempker explained. "So the one-to-one communication outside the county or with other agencies is what is extremely beneficial."


“Right now, not being on the same system, that does provide some substantial challenges,” said Brian Sipe, Spring Lake fire chief and Ottawa County Fire Chiefs Association president. “You can't talk to these other fire departments in Muskegon County and Kent County."


The county will also be able to communicate more easily with state police and state emergency management and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in a disaster situation, McWatters said.


The old emergency communications system was a VHF, or Very High Frequency, radio system, used by the county for decades. Sipe said on the old system there were coverage issues when his team would respond to incidents on Lake Michigan.


"With our previous VHF system, if we had any incidents that were along the lakeshore there, we could not communicate with our VHF radios," Sipe said. "Those were areas that had poor cell coverage. So when we talk about that vital link for communication, as Sheriff Kempker mentioned, we didn't have it. Now with our 800 system, we communicate as clear as day."


Funded with revenue from the county's 20-year 911 millage, some of the major costs of the project involved installing several new radio towers and retrofitting existing towers to create a network of 11 towers that provide coverage throughout the county.


"We knew we were going to need to transition to this level some years ago," said Pat McGinnis, Grand Haven city manager and president of the OCCDA board. "So we started taking a portion of our tax millage authority some years back and setting it aside and now we've pledged some of the operating millage going forward to retire this debt that we have with Motorola."


The project was initially expected to cost $13.5 million but the need for an additional radio tower in Georgetown Township brought the cost up to $14.2 million.


"With today's technology — cellphones, the computers in the car — the voice technology is still the most important to us, whether it's the fire department out on a scene, law enforcement on a scene, to be able to communicate immediately for the needs that we need on the scene," Kempker said.


"This radio project, it's going to take us well into the future."


— Contact reporter Carolyn Muyskens at cmuyskens@hollandsentinel.com and follow her on Twitter at @cjmuyskens.