26 June 2005

NewCom Pulls Plug To Join Allegheny Co.

Officials hesitant about county takeover of 911

By Craig Rice, Staff WriterThursday, June 23, 2005

Newcom, the regional emergency dispatch center that was created in 1996 to benefit residents of numerous North Hills municipalities, pulled the plug on its' phones for good yesterday, June 22.

Gone are the days when in-need-of-assistance locals from 17 communities, including Richland, Marshall, Ross and Pine townships as well as Bradford Woods Borough had their emergency 911 calls routed to the top floor of Shaler Municipal Building where Newcom made its' home. The nine year tenure of Newcom ended this week when it became the fifth of seven former regional emergency dispatch centers in and around Pittsburgh to be absorbed into Allegheny County's 911 system located in North Point Breeze.

"I think it is a good idea," says Dean Bastianini, Richland Township manager. "I think all of us are reluctant to give up on the operations of Newcom because we have a high regard for the staff and the way Newcom was operated. "(Newcom) was a significant improvement over what we had before in terms of technology and it was, I think, respected by everyone for how well it was operated."

Allegheny County Chief Executive Dan Onorato lobbied for the consolidation of the seven regional emergency dispatch centers into one county-wide system after taking office last year. Onorato developed a plan to fund the consolidation by raising a monthly 911 charge that appears on county residents' phone bills by 26 cents to $1 a month. An increase that would generate an estimated $1.5 million to support the consolidated system. Some local administrators' employ concern that the level of service will continue as the county assumes responsibility of dispatching emergency calls.

Nonetheless, consolidation will save the 17 municipalities that bought into Newcom considerable sums of money that each paid to the regional center for operation. Richland will to save an estimated $22,000 for the remainder of 2005 and $50,000 the following year, said Bastianini. Pine town manager Gary Koehler estimated a savings of $42,500 in 2006. "As long as the county doesn't then say we have to pay," he said. Newcom is still paying a debt for equipment bought several years ago and those 17 municipalities will continue to pay their shares.

"I have a wait-and-see attitude. The county promised us the same level of service that was seen in the past and we expect service to continue at that level," Koehler said. Holding suit with most of the regional consolidations, all 19 floor operators and even one administrator from Newcom are expected to assume jobs with the county this week. However, two top-tier Newcom administrators, Brian Melby and Gary Thomas, did not make the transition. They took positions out of state. Brian Melby, who was the only Newcom director in nine years, was left without a comparable position with the county and consequently accepted an offer to become the emergency dispatch manager of the City of Aurora, Colo. "It is purely that they have the numbers filled at the top and don't have any positions that would really fit," Melby said, adding he will be sad to leave.

In the past, when a resident of the communities that Newcom served called 911 for assistance from either police, firefighters, an ambulance, paramedics or even public works during situations like floods, it was routed to Newcom in Shaler. Professional Newcom dispatchers then would notify the respective community department. Those first on the scene would relay back to the dispatchers possibly requesting back-up from neighboring departments. Under the consolidated system, calls from inside Allegheny County -- excluding those from constituents of the two regional centers that have not made the move yet -- will be routed to the North Point Breeze headquarters and should be answered by a dispatcher that transferred from the regional facility from which the call formerly would have been answered.

Consequently, police officers, firefighters and others should be speaking to the same voices as before consolidation. "It won't be readily apparent to users that a change has even been made, that is how sophisticated this technology is," Bastianini said. Newcom necessitated a partnership between many communities and there were several committees and organizations that had input into operations, Bastianini says. The county pledges those same organizations will not lose a voice. "I don't think you are going to see a deterioration," Melby says. "I think you are going to see the same level of service now and hopefully in a year of two, an improvement of services."

12 June 2005

Houston, The Blah-Gher Has Landed ! (again...)

A notice for all of you who look in on these writings either on a regular basis, or maybe just every now & again. The Bloogher-BlahGher himself, K3SAM has done it again. Due to some recurring technical problems on the original web hosting site that began his Blah-G's journey through cyberspace, 'the Chief' began temporarily posting his entries on his own website in order to "keep the drive alive". Be advised all of you faithful Blah-Ghers, that he has now moved his Blah-G column once more. You will now find the Blah-G Master's one-of-a-kind articles at the following link:

K3SAM's Booger Blah-G
(link is also available at right in sidebar)

His posts revolve mostly around the new Westmoreland County DPS 800Mhz Radio System, and include serious information on the latest happenings, along with some amusing anecdotes on what can be heard there. So whether you own a new 800Mhz digi-scanner and listen to the action, or link up to the NKNOC Labs Live Streaming Scanner Audio to catch the latest, or don't even listen at all, click over to see what the Blah-Gher has to lighten your day!

Also, don't miss the K3SAM web site. It's chock full of Westmoreland County Scanner Radio info, including frequencies, station & unit identifiers, photos, file downloads, and much more.

Click here to visit the K3SAM Website

Scan on.....

08 June 2005

Too Many Fire Companies?

First it was the City of Pittsburgh closing Fire Stations around the city for the sake of a balanced budget so we're told. Will this begin to spread to the rural areas next, or, is consolidation the answer? When Governor Rendell decides that your Fire Company no longer deserves any state funding, will it be able to survive? Read the article below and post your comments at the end using the "Comments" link.

State has too many fire companies, report says
Wednesday, June 08, 2005By Bill Toland, Post-Gazette Harrisburg Bureau

HARRISBURG -- All the summer carnivals and Friday evening bingo games in the world won't be able to rescue the state's thousands of volunteer firefighter companies, many of which are facing grave funding and manpower shortages, according to a report issued yesterday.

The report urges the volunteer companies to share resources, promote regional partnerships and, in some cases, consolidate two or more small departments into larger ones. The next three years may be "the most critical in the history of the state's fire service community," said state Fire Commissioner Edward Mann. The state, he said simply, "has too many fire companies."

But the report also warned that effecting such change will be difficult. Mergers, whether they're fire companies, school districts or entire municipalities, are politically unpopular. Socially and culturally, people like the neighborhood fire hall, especially in Western Pennsylvania, where fire hall wedding receptions and school dances are still common.

The 156-page report, issued by the state's nonpartisan
Legislative Budget and Finance Committee, contains recommendations that are mirrored by virtually every other study on the issue, including one presented to the state Senate early this year. Recommendations to broadly "regionalize" volunteer fire companies date back to at least 1976, though little progress has been made toward that goal.

This report, which surveyed fire chiefs and emergency officials across the state, said many fire companies duplicate services and equipment, consuming resources that could be better spent elsewhere, or at least cooperatively. The report also cited a competitive spirit between companies that can be detrimental. Companies hold competing fund-raisers, and sometimes buy expensive equipment just because the neighboring company has also bought it.

"Remember the saying 'Keeping up with the Joneses?' " one survey respondent asked. "Many departments are deep in that tradition, and also deep in debt." Another anonymous respondent claimed, "Funds [are] being spent on equipment that is 'cool,' rather than necessary."

Despite the reports of duplication, the state doesn't have a firm grasp on what companies own what equipment. The report suggests the state keep better inventory of fire companies' resources. It also recommends the state look into creating new funding streams for volunteer fire companies to draw from -- a new tax on homeowners insurance policies, or an increase in existing fire taxes.

Manpower is just as big a problem as revenue. The number of volunteers staffing the state's fire companies has dropped like a stone. In 1976, there were about 300,000 volunteer firefighters. Three decades later, there are 72,000, most of whom spend more time raising money than fighting fires.

While the number of firefighters has dropped, the number of fire companies has remained relatively steady, with only a handful of consolidations over the last decade. Allegheny County is the chief when it comes to volunteer fire companies, with 196 of them, more than in any other Pennsylvania county, according to the report. That's one fire company for every 3.7 square miles, or more than one per municipality. Pennsylvania, meanwhile, has nearly 2,400 volunteer departments, more than in any other state by far.

Many of the volunteer groups came to be as Pennsylvania was first settled, starting in Philadelphia and spreading westward. They cropped up in mill towns, in small farming settlements and all points in between. As population migrated to the suburbs, volunteer companies migrated there, too, while the stations left behind continued operating. The long tradition of relying on volunteer firefighters, rather than professional ones, today saves Pennsylvania taxpayers about $6 billion a year in salary and health care costs.

But the combination of too many firehouses with not enough firefighters in them has created "a looming public safety crisis." Many of the fire chiefs who responded to the survey said that there have been times when their fire company couldn't quickly respond to a call, because no volunteers were available when the call came in. Some survey respondents were leery of mergers, or even the consolidation of equipment. Response times would go up, making the community less safe. A respondent also said that mergers and the resulting closures "will not result in an influx of volunteers but will result in a decrease, [due] to the loss of home rule and the distance that must be traveled to the fire stations."

Even when firefighters are receptive to the idea of consolidation, sometimes things don't go so smoothly. The Jefferson Fire and Rescue association, a nonprofit cooperative of four fire companies in Jefferson Hills, was sued by two of its member companies, Floreffe and Gill Hall volunteer fire departments, this spring. The umbrella group was put together in the 1990s.

The report said that while fire protection services are often delivered ineffectively, firefighters themselves are doing the best they can while drawing from a dwindling pool of volunteers. One respondent noted that many male-dominated volunteer service organizations -- Elks, Masons, Rotary groups -- are having their own difficulties recruiting new members.

Have an opinion...? Post it here by clicking the "Comments" link directly below!

Scan on....

04 June 2005

June's 1st Weekend Post

Once again I'll first open this posting with a genuine "Thank You" to all of you who have been writing in with regard to the Westmoreland County 800Mhz radio system, offering your opinions about it, as well as other technical data on where things are and how it is set up to operate. Notes on the live scanner feed are also appreciated, and your continued participation is encouraged.

As can be observed by simply reading our Scanner Page, the NKNOC Labs has been using both WIN96 and PRO96COM software applications in connection with monitoring the new WCDPS 800Mhz communications system. For those not aware, the WIN96 program is used to easily program all of the frequencies, text tags and settings into either a Radio Shack Pro-96 or Pro-2096 scanner via your PC. Both programs require a special data interface cable that connects your scanner to the Com Port on the computer. WIN96 makes programming the radios a snap, and Don Starr is to be commended for producing such a comprehensive piece of software for a very reasonable cost. WIN96 sort of fits into the picture and does its job BEFORE you start scanning. PRO96COM, another great and FREE piece of software (thank you Mike Vander Veer!) on the other hand, comes into play DURING scanning, displaying the Radio ID's and Unit Numbers (that you've entered) on your computer screen whenever a radio keys up. Here's the short take on how it works. Your scanner is tuned to the Control Channel of a 9600 baud digital system's tower signal. The scanner's IF section strips out the digital data stream and feeds it to your PC's Com Port where PRO96COM picks it up and decodes it into all of the individual pieces of data it carries. These fields of information are then routed to and displayed on the various screens of the program. It should be mentioned here that when your scanner is connected to your PC for use with PRO96COM, it must be put into PC/IF mode (press PGM-FUNC-PGM-PGM) which lets it talk to your computer through the serial port. This is fine, however, when in PC/IF mode, the scanner DOES NOT put out any audio from either the speaker or earphone jack. "Watching" and listening at the same time (which is the whole idea in the first place...) requires TWO scanners. You can find links to websites for both of these programs on our scanner page under "Scanner Software". The NKNOC Labs Westmoreland County 800Mhz system data files for both of these programs are also available for download by using the links on the Scanner Page.

OK, time here for a plug for that old Booger Blah-gher himself, K3SAM. Be sure to check out his website which is chock full of Westmoreland County scanning information, especially the new 800Mhz system. Frequencies, TalkGroups, Station & Unit Designators, How To's, Photos, and much more. Link to K3SAM CLICK-IT or TICKET !! And be sure to tell him that the "GMan" sent you!

Have a great weekend, and as always, click on the "Comments" link below to leave your mark here!

Scan on....