Portage County’s Emergency Management Office is in the midst of three projects aimed at standardizing first responder communications, upgrading the county’s emergency operations center and making high-speed internet accessible countywide.
The plans include the construction of communications towers, expansion of the EOC facility and running fiber optics to homes in underserved areas of the county — and each project is worth caring about. Here’s why:
Three new communications towers are going up in Portage County, all of them dedicated to ensuring safety.
MARCS (Multi-Agency Radio Communications Systems) towers allow Portage County to replace its VHF system with one that allows first responders and other service personnel across the state to communicate seamlessly.
One targeted location is a 330-foot tower on the campus of James A. Garfield Schools in Garrettsville. Another will be erected at the ODOT garage close to the intersection of state Route 14 and Yale Road in Deerfield Township, and the third is proposed for a 31.9-acre Ohio Department of Natural Resources property at 425 Waterloo Road in Suffield Township between Mishler and Martin roads.
The three new towers will join one on Rootstown’s NEOMED campus, one near Peck Road and state Route 303 in Shalersville, and one on top of the Kent State University library. Those towers leave mostly rural areas of southeast, northeast and southwest Portage County without coverage.
The three additional towers will increase capacity and coverage for communication between agencies both inside and outside Portage County.
“Each community has different reasons for switching to MARCS or staying on the VHF system we have used in Portage County historically,” said Ryan Shackelford, director of Portage County’s Homeland Security and Emergency Management office. “Some are technological reasons, but MARCS is the statewide interoperable system and the largest in the nation owned and managed by a state.”
State-of-the-art Motorola technology on the towers will allow computer systems and software, even if they are created by different manufacturers, to exchange and make use of information.
All counties bordering Portage except Mahoning are primarily on MARCS, and “being on one radio system enhances the ability for interoperability in and outside Portage County,” Shackelford said. “Essentially the towers are all connected, needing less frequencies while expanding signal strength.”
Each tower is accompanied by a shelter that houses all electrical, radio and fiber optic equipment associated with the tower. Shelters are also equipped with backup generators to ensure the towers do not fail.
New shelters cost in the neighborhood of $200,000 and would take six to nine months to build, but Shackelford discovered that existing shelters could cost much less. How much less is unknown, as he is still researching appropriate shelter sizes and specifications.
Acquiring used shelters, if ones fitting Shackelford’s specs can be found, both protects the county’s pocketbook and allows the shelters to be put into place more quickly: All the county has to do is arrange for them to be picked up and moved to the new tower site.
The plan is for the county to use its grant money to build the towers, which would then be turned over to the State of Ohio for ongoing maintenance.
The state will also fully cover radio user fees instead of only providing a $10 monthly subsidy. That, Shackelford said, will save area first responder agencies and others who use the MARCS technology some $180,000 a year, while allowing operators to communicate not only with each other but with other agencies that may respond to a given incident.
Shackelford hopes to have the towers and shelters in place by early 2024, if not sooner. After the county builds its three towers, they will be turned over to the State of Ohio, saving the county annual maintenance and sustainment costs.
Emergency Operations Center
The county’s emergency operations center (EOC) on state Route 59 between Kent and Ravenna is also receiving attention.
The EOC, which Shackelford termed “undersized,” is located at the Portage County Sheriff’s office and houses emergency supplies and specialty emergency response equipment. Emergency Management Agency personnel realized during the pandemic that the building hampered their ability to respond to large disasters.
By autumn 2024, it will be a little bigger than it is now and will include office space for EMA operations, Shackelford said.
“We have countless stakeholders, typical and atypical stakeholders, that come to the table to collaborate and make sure that we can respond to any large-scale emergency that happens. This structure gives us the sufficient size to be able to do so,” Shackelford said.
The upsized, upgraded structure will allow the county EMA to store personal protective equipment “and other assets that we have” for the next incident, Shackelford said.
“Obviously, the Emergency Management Office, our whole focus is to be able to respond to large disasters, which lucky enough here in northeastern Ohio are infrequent, but we also need to make sure that we’re prepared at all times,” he said.
Price tag? An estimated $4 million, all of which will be covered by the county’s share of ARPA funds. Shackelford said having the ability to coordinate emergency operations is worth it.
The county is moving along with its efforts to ensure broadband internet is available everywhere.
Having high-speed broadband “could enhance business operations, entice businesses to build in rural areas, provide high-speed internet for at-home businesses, telework, telehealth, remote school, online college and generally enhance the livelihood of Portage County citizens since internet is a daily, if not necessary, part of our life,” Shackelford said.
To identify underserved areas, the county tasked telecom and mass media giant Charter Communications, which manages Spectrum Mid-America, to conduct a survey to identify unserved and underserved areas in the county. Turns out there are about 2,600 locations, most of them in northeast Portage County.
Reaching those locations means lining about 225 miles of roadway, mostly in northeast Portage County, with fiber optics to the premises (FTTP). Not to the pole near the house, but to the house itself, Shackelford clarified.
Complicating matters is Shackelford’s observation that private sector cable-based telecommunications companies such as Spectrum, AT&T, HughesNet, Suddenlink, CenturyLink and a host of others will not expand into areas served by other companies.
Knowing they have no competition, companies that provide less-than-satisfactory customer and internet service have little incentive to improve, enhance their technology or offer competitive prices, Shackelford said.
In Portage County, that means 91 survey respondents are in a bind and may need to stick with the providers they have now, Shackelford said.
Charter Communications has to seek agreements with each pole owner, which can be tricky.
“Every pole that goes down the street may be owned by FirstEnergy, maybe by someone else, and they have to seek agreements with each one of those companies, or whoever those entities are, to run the fiber on the pole,” Shackelford said.
Portage County is devoting $1.1 million of its ARPA allocation to the project with help from Charter Communications, which is kicking in more than $800,000. Grants from the Rural Digital Opportunity Fund will also help offset the total project cost, estimated at a bit over $1.9 million, Shackelford said.
Wendy DiAlesandro is a former Record Publishing Co. reporter and contributing writer for The Portager.