Ohio District Overhauls Its 2-Way Radios

In order to comply with the rapidly approaching FCC narrowbanding mandate and ease communication between its campuses and first responders, the South-Western City School District underwent a major radio system upgrade. The new system allows for district-wide communication with digital radios, GPS tracking on buses and instant access to the Grove City police dispatch center.

Prior to August 2011, the radio system at South-Western City School (SWCS) District in Franklin County, Ohio, was plagued by uneven coverage and equipment incompatibility. Buses and schools were on two different systems — VHF and UHF, respectively — and some facilities lacked radios altogether.

The rapidly approaching Jan. 1, 2013 deadline for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) narrowbanding mandate — which requires radio systems to operate at 12.5 kHz efficiency technology — and a weather emergency that alerted the district to the fact that school staff could not be contacted via radio once they moved to their schools’ tornado-safe areas, prompted SWCS to upgrade its two-way radios.

Now, the district, which is the sixth largest in the state, has a MOTOTRBO XPR 8300 repeater system that allows communication across the 119 square miles served by the district. The solution also provides feature-rich digital radios for administrators and transportation staff, as well as analog radios for intra-building teacher and custodian use.

Radios Well-Worth the Investment
District officials knew the decision to upgrade was a good one on Feb. 13 when an unexpected health hazard erupted at Westland High School.

Related Article: Radios Offer Options for School Buses

“That first day [of the week-long incident], 11 students and staff members were taken to area hospitals for observation,” says Gary Sigrist, Jr., project director for readiness and emergency management in schools. “What started out as three sick kids mushroomed into a hazmat situation.”

An unidentified odor was reported in the classroom where students and staff fell ill. Although subsequent testing of the school’s boilers, sewer system, air ducts, acid traps in chemistry labs and other areas yielded no harmful airborne particulates or volatile organic compounds, school officials at the time felt it necessary to evacuate the campus.

The district’s new radio system allowed for evacuation instructions to be easily transmitted. Parents were diverted to a nearby grocery store parking lot and reunited with their children without hassle. “In the old days, there would have been a juggling of cell phones [by district officials],” Sigrist explains.

Because the system is interoperable with seven law enforcement agencies and fire departments, the Prairie Township Fire Department and Columbus Department of Fire HazMat Team were contacted within minutes and quickly responded to the scene.

“That’s when it was really shown how important it was to have this communication system,” Sigirist says.

Creativity Overcomes Funding Challenges
Budget restrictions did not deter South-Western City School District from upgrading its system. Instead, officials got savvy about the equipment they were purchasing.

“Most law enforcement agencies operate radios that are either at 800 or 900 MHz,” Sigrist explains. The district had made interoperability with first responders a priority, but 800 or 900 MHz radios were out of the question at about $2,700 a pop. “What we did instead was create our own system,” he says.

The majority of the district’s buildings are located in Grove City, Ohio. The district now owns the radio station that the city operates on. “They are part of our system, instead of the other way around. And so instead of buying $2,700 radios to talk with the police, we’ve bought $800 radios so the police can talk with us.”
<p>SWCS has 34 schools on 31 different campuses. The district serves students across a 119 square mile area.</p>SWCS Partners with Law Enforcement
When the district started looking for a solution to its radio system dilemma, it sought the help of the Grove City Police Department. The department, as it turned out, had an existing relationship with a local channel partner, B&C Communications.

“This project came together because of the district’s relationships with our police and fire departments,” Sigrist says. “We’re not the subject matter experts.”

B&C Communications, an authorized Motorola service station, suggested the MOTOTRBO platform and spoke with the district on how to become interoperable with Grove City police. The result was a two-part installation that began in Spring 2011 with CP200 XLS analog radios and ended that summer with MOTOTRBO digital radios.

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