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Council approves replacement radios for Libby Police Department

by DERRICK PERKINS
Editor | July 20, 2021 7:00 AM

Libby City Council approved July 6 spending $73,271 of incoming American Rescue Plan Act funds to replace police radios.

The dollars would cover the cost of portable and mobile radios, including those mounted in police vehicles, as well as programming and installation, according to Libby Police Chief Scott Kessel. The city’s top lawman told city councilors that the department’s radios were in dire need of replacement.

The existing devices, made by Motorola, have fallen into obsolescence, Kessel said. Support and replacement parts for the radios in patrol vehicles are unavailable, he said. The portable radios handled by officers, just seven years old, are more expensive to fix than replace.

“The mobile radios in the cars, there are no parts available — they will not be maintained by Motorola,” Kessel said. “The portables … these things are only seven years old and at this point it’s not cost effective to repair them. That’s what the manufacturer told us, that it was going to cost more to repair than replace.”

Adding to the headache, a recent upgrade undertaken by the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office has made it more difficult for the two agencies to communicate. Since adopting dual band radios with access to the 800-megahertz band of airwaves, officials with the sheriff’s office and local police officers have struggled to communicate with one another.

And, finally, to meet federal interoperability requirements, the devices need updating, Kessel said.

One advantage to an upgrade: It will give officers the ability to radio from within the medical center and local school buildings, Kessel said.

“If we ever have a major incident, whether it be at one of the schools or the hospital or a wildfire, I can’t talk to them from my portable and — half the time — from my car radio,” said Kessel, telling city councilors that his vehicle-mounted radio runs on scavenged parts.

In advance of appearing before city councilors, Kessel requested a quote from Montana Electronics Company, the same vendor used by the sheriff’s office. Six replacement mobile radios will cost about $34,191. Six portable radios will run the city about $35,772. Programming costs another $230 and installation will add $3,078. The department will stick with Motorola for the replacement devices.

To make the price tag more palatable, Kessel said he went with as few luxuries as possible, including eschewing trunking capability. Trunking allows for a more efficient assignment of open channels to various groups using mobile radio systems in the same area. Eliminating trunking, a capability personnel with the sheriff’s office enjoy, saved about $5,000, he said.

“One of the things with cost being the major issue, we looked at how we could save money on the proposal,” Kessel said. “We didn’t need any unnecessary frills.”

Still, City Councilor Rob Dufficy balked at the price tag.

“I should buy stock in Motorola,” he said, before asking how long officials could expect the new radios to remain in working order.

“No idea,” Kessel replied. “What you find is technology is such that you have 90 days and then after that it’s planned out to obsolescence.”

City Councilor Kristin Smith made the motion to approve the expenditure. City Councilor Gary Beach offered a second. City council voted unanimously in favor of the purchase.

The dollars will come out of the roughly $354,932 pot of American Rescue Plan Act dollars received by the city thus far. Officials say a second lump sum is expected within the next 12 months.

Samuel Sikes, Libby’s clerk and treasurer, told city councilors on July 6 that broadband communication projects are considered eligible as infrastructure improvements.

“If you look at some of the documentation … it talks about communication projects, including cell towers or for public safety,” he said.

Kessel said he planned to order the replacement equipment as soon as possible.