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Public Safety and Private Utility…a Unique Partnership

Written by Mark Pallans

Joint public safety and private sector communication systems are almost unheard of except during times of disaster, when mutual aid and coordination is required. NVEnergy, the parent company of the Nevada Power Co. and Sierra Pacific Power, was one of the winners of the first UTC (Utilities Telecom Council) APEX awards, which recognizes a utility’s public service through the use of telecommunications.

How this recognition came to pass is a lesson in partnership between private industry and public safety organizations. The joint operation of the Nevada Shared Radio System is a study of cooperation and cost benefits between Nevada’s two primary electric utility companies, the Nevada Department of Transportation, the Nevada Department of Public Safety, Washoe County and a host of local, state, federal and tribal organizations.

Nevada Power is the primary provider of electricity for the southern portion of Nevada, including Las Vegas. Sierra Pacific Power provides electricity for most of northern Nevada and the Lake Tahoe area. These companies have a long history as users of radio communications as a tool for operations and maintenance, as well as for life-safety purposes.

The required coverage of a utility radio system is relatively unique. Unlike most local government and public safety systems, the utility company requires coverage along its rights-of-way rather than coverage through the population centers of the community. In the case of Sierra Pacific, this includes many rural and desolate areas of the state of Nevada, where power transmission lines run, as well as along many of the primary state highways.

The Department of Transportation of the state of Nevada operates a statewide radio system, which was initially used for coverage of all state-managed roadways. In the mid-1990s, both the power companies and the DOT agreed that a joint venture into a common radio system would best serve all the interests of the participants. The power companies would concentrate on remote coverage sites, and the DOT would concentrate on roadway coverage.

As the system matured into the 21st century, the site uses blended, and both parties have been working together on site development, operation and maintenance. The overall combined radio system is now called the Nevada Shared Radio System (NSRS).

The DOT, through an inter-local agreement, joined with Washoe County in 1999 as a member of the Washoe County Regional Communications Systems (WCRCS). This inter-local agreement had provisions for all users to share in the use of the statewide DOT system and the WCRCS radio system, which covered the Reno, Sparks and Lake Tahoe areas with a high level of performance.

The change of this radio system into a statewide public safety radio system began in 2001. The University of Nevada in Reno became a user of the WCRCS and the University of Nevada in Las Vegas joined the NSRS through NDOT. The police departments of these educational institutions are the primary users of the radio system. The connectivity of the radio system allows both campuses to have common talk-groups and the ability to talk across the state.

The Nevada Highway Patrol patrols the entire state. Its legacy VHF radio system was outdated and needed upgrades and additional sites in order to keep up with the growth of the state. Through a series of issues related to spectrum availability, coverage requirements and the booming growth of the state, the most expedient and cost-effective method for the Nevada Department of Public Safety to improve its radio coverage was to join the NSRS.

In 2003, the Nevada Highway Patrol became a statewide user of the NSRS. The radio system gave them the statewide mobile coverage they required, as well as a means of interoperability with the other primary public safety users of Nevada. The NSRS radio sites cover all of the primary highways in the state.

The system is an 800 MHz EDACS system utilizing more than 90 sites. The number of channels at each site varies from one to 15. The channel quantities at each site are still being adjusted for best match of the loading in various parts of the state. The system has five “controllers” (IMCs), which are all tied to an EDACS “Stargate.” The Stargate allows all of the five systems to work seamlessly as one statewide system. Any user can have statewide coverage based upon his needs.

The partnership created by the NSRS has enhanced communications for all participants. Individually, each user would have to expend significantly more capital funding to achieve its necessary performance levels if not a member of the partnership.

For example, the Washoe County School District, a member of the WCRCS, has buses traveling statewide to accommodate the requirements of the county’s sports program. It would be impossible for them to have statewide radio coverage if they had to fund their own system. Since cellular service is limited in the rural areas of the state, they rely on the NSRS for necessary communications when away from home.

Both of the utility companies and NDOT have full radio maintenance facilities. Through working agreements, these three entities are responsible for the maintenance of the entire infrastructure. Sierra Pacific and Nevada power are responsible for the sites in their operational areas. NDOT radio personnel cover the sites in other areas of the state. Several Washoe County sites are co-located with NSRS sites so their technicians always have the availability of the NSRS staff to assist them. The costs of maintenance for each participant in the system would be approximately tripled if they had their own system.

Training costs have been reduced. Since all of the participants share the one technology and vendor, Harris (the former M/A-COM), the system provider has brought its trainers to Nevada, either Las Vegas, Carson City or Elko, to provide courses normally given at its facility in Virginia. By sharing the costs, the economics of bringing one instructor out West is significantly less expensive than having the technicians and engineers all travel to Virginia.

The joint radio system has benefited the participants operationally. Most significant is that interoperability is integral to the system. As long as radios are programmed for multiple agencies, all of them have numerous common communications channels with which to work.

Sharing of facilities brings in higher levels of redundancy. Just before New Year’s Eve 2004, a snowstorm caused the loss of an antenna at a key Nevada Highway Patrol site overlooking Las Vegas. Nevada Power and DOT techs got to the site via helicopter and were able to restore the Highway Patrol’s communications by shutting down the Nevada Power transmitters and using that transmitting antenna for the NHP. The power company determined that it could use other sites, and the temporary fix was maintained for several months until access to the site was possible in the spring and a new antenna could be brought in.

During the summer of 2004, there were several large wildfires in northern Nevada. Had it not been for the abundance of sites available through the NSRS, communications would have been severely stifled when the multitudes of agencies responded to the scenes of the fires.

There have been a few regulatory roadblocks that had to be overcome. Public safety and utilities do not share the same spectrum. Nevada has several special cases, which the FCC considered when spectrum for the NSRS was being assigned. Much of the state is empty. One of the largest employers in the state is the federal government with such agencies as the Department of Energy, which operates the Nuclear Test Site; the military, which operate Nellis Air Force Base (Home of the Thunderbirds and the Predator); Fallon Naval Air Station; and, of course, the research facilities of “Area 51.”

These organizations do not share spectrum with civilian agencies. The 800 MHz Region Plan for Nevada now addresses interagency cooperation, interoperability and the importance of the “critical infrastructure industries” in providing effective communications throughout the state. With the cooperation of all of the organizations and the FCC, the qualifications required for assignment of 800 MHz frequencies within the state have become simplified, and no agency has gone without spectrum.

The Nevada Shared Radio System is still evolving. As growth in the state continues, so will the system grow as will its interoperability with other agencies. Currently, the system controllers are being replaced with IP-based products to allow for future growth. Other utility companies are looking into developing similar public / private partnerships.

Mark Pallans is the system administrator for the Nevada Shared Radio System. Previously, he was the telecommunications manager for the City of Fort Lauderdale, and he holds a degree in electrical engineering. He is a member of both the APCO Spectrum Management Committee and the Editorial Board of APCO. He operates Pallans Associates, a consulting company specializing in local government and public safety communications. He can be reached at mpallans@pallansassociates.com.

Published in Law and Order, Jul 2009

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