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RACOM Privately Owned Public Safety Radio System

Written by James Careless

RACOM is unique among public safety radio systems. It is a privately owned and operated radio system that covers the entire state of Iowa and the border areas of South Dakota, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois. Based upon the Tyco Electronics’ M/A-COM EDACS platform and operating in the 800 MHz band, RACOM’s trunked network serves more than 10,000 users in 300 different public safety agencies. The network is privately owned by RACOM of Marshaltown, IA. This is a family firm that never intended to run its own PS radio network.

Roots

The late Gregg Miller started RACOM Wireless back in 1972. He wasn’t even targeting the public safety community. Instead, Miller was providing analog wireless communications for farmers over the 800 MHz band. As cell phones started to catch on, RACOM’s farm-based market began to contract. No problem. Miller adapted by starting to offer radio services to local law enforcement.

In 1994, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office solicited bids for a new public safety network. RACOM was up against the Big Boys—Motorola and M/A-COM—in seeking the bid. In this instance, David won against Goliath, only to see the entire project go south when local voters refused to back the bond proposal to fund the system.

Thinking creatively, RACOM struck a deal with the now cash-strapped Polk County Sheriff’s Office. RACOM already had its 800 MHz network in place, and the county had just enough money to buy M/A-COM radios to use it. So the Polk County Sheriff’s Department became the first agency to become a paying user of the RACOM network; a position it has maintained to this day.

“Polk County was the first area we covered with our towers,” said Terry Brennan, RACOM’s VP of sales and marketing. “As more counties became interested in using our network, we built more towers. Today, we own and operate a 96-site 800 MHz M/A-COM EDACS system. It is built to public safety standards and used by 300 agencies who pay a monthly subscription fee.”

What the Users Think

Thomas Jennings is chief of the Waterloo Police Department that serves a population of 68,000. The WPD is based in Black Hawk County, IA. It and all other police, fire and EMS departments in the county are on the RACOM network. “We have about 850 radios on RACOM,” Jennings said.

“We signed on in 1994, back at a time when every single department in the county seemed to be operating [its] own proprietary radio systems. Since most of those systems were due for replacement, the chiefs got together to hammer out an interoperable communications solution for the county. After talking with RACOM, we decided that paying a monthly access fee was a better, easier to manage alternative to building a new transmission system ourselves.”
Ken Runde is sheriff of Dubuque County, IA with a population of 92,000. “We’ve been on RACOM since 1998,” he said. “Today, we have about 600 radios in service for police, fire and EMS.” Like Black Hawk County, Dubuque opted for RACOM as a more affordable alternative to building its own interoperable radio system. “The bids we got back to build a county-wide system came in at $9 million,” he said. “In contrast, with the radios included, the bid from RACOM was only $3.2 million. That is a significant difference.”

Clearly, RACOM has performed well on price for local law enforcement. As for actual communications performance? Both chiefs say that they are satisfied with RACOM’s reliability and coverage. “The system works great, and we are very happy with it,” Runde said.

“RACOM was there for us during the 2008 floods that hit much of Iowa,” Jennings said. “When our Dispatch Center in Waterloo was close to being flooded, they worked hand-in-hand with us to keep things running and prepare a backup dispatch site in case we had to evacuate.” Working with Tyco Electronics, RACOM provided more than 100 spare EDACS radios to first responders helping at the flood scene. “It was a true test of RACOM’s actual commitment to their first responder subscribers, and they came through with flying colors,” he said.

“Tyco Electronics supplied us with 100 EDACS radios in boxes, each worth $4,000,” said Mike Miller, company president / CEO. “This allowed us to ensure that every hospital and public health agency had the communications they needed. We also set up six fixed stations at various facilities…to ensure reliable communications when the floods were knocking out landlines and cell phone coverage.”

The one caveat that both Jennings and Runde are concerned about is the possibility of RACOM, as a third-party private supplier, someday going out of business, leaving its public safety subscribers high and dry. “RACOM is our primary network and our backup,” Jennings said. “If something happened to them, we would have problems.” As a precaution, Dubuque County has constructed its own barebones radio system as a backup. “If they went bankrupt, we’d be able to keep going with this system, at least locally, Runde said.

Analysis

Are the conveniences of having a third-party vendor build and maintain your public safety radio system worth the risks? According to Jennings, the answer is yes. “Thanks to RACOM, we have solid interoperability and radio communications at a price we can afford,” he said. “In those times when funding is tight, the company has even frozen their rates to help us out.” Runde added, “There haven’t been any downsides to using RACOM for the past 10 years. They have kept their promises.”

This said, these officers’ support is linked directly to RACOM’s integrity and commitment to public safety. In plain English, RACOM has proven itself to be a trustworthy partner, allowing its government clients to enjoy the benefits of its services with an easy mind.

Can this model work in other jurisdictions? Maybe. For one thing, it costs millions of dollars to build a public safety network, something that is likely out of reach for most two-way radio vendors. The reason RACOM was able to do so was because it built its network on a stage-by-stage basis, which allowed it to keep capital expenses under control while its subscriber revenue grew. It also helps that RACOM’s subscribers purchased their EDACS radios from this vendor, again boosting its financial success.

Another point worth considering is corporate culture. Gregg Miller and his company are clearly dedicated to supporting the public safety customers they serve. No less a commitment would be required from any other private company that supplies radio services to law enforcement. Without it, lapses in public safety communications could occur at the cost of police and public lives.

The bottom line is if a reputable vendor can be found that is willing and able to do what RACOM has already done in Iowa, then law enforcement managers would be well-advised to give this option serious thought. After all, it is working well in the Hawkeye State.

James Careless is a freelance writer who specializes in first responder communications issues. He can be reached at jcareless5000@yahoo.com.

Published in Law and Order, Jul 2009

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