MAYVILLE - Patchwork communication held together by wires and duct tape.
That's how Sheriff Joe Gerace describes the county's current radio system used by police, fire and other emergency services to dispatch and respond to a variety of situations throughout the county.
And it's evident during high-risk moments just how outdated - and dangerous - the current system is.
"Right now I can hear one of our cars out in Cassadaga dealing with a possible abduction," Gerace said during a recent interview with the OBSERVER. "I can't communicate with them because I might step on his messages."
"So now I have to call on my cellphone, and our dispatcher has to answer the phone as this is going on."
Gerace, who chairs the Radio Communications Advisory Committee, said the county has been plagued for years with missteps and roadblocks to update its system.
County radio system timeline
January 1994: A group of radio users meet with county Planning Board about updating its radio systems.
April 1995: A formal advisory committee is formed and $50,000 is put into a capital project.
September 1996: Consulting firm RCC is hired at $46,000, while another $50,000 is placed into the capital project during the 1996 budget year.
May 1997: Application for 800 MHz frequency sent; the capital project receives $1.25 million.
January 1998: Application sent to Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials and FCC for $5,100. An additional $1.25 million is placed into the capital project.
April 1998: FCC license approved.
March 2000: Company hired to install microwave loops for at nearly $2 million. State then announces its own statewide wireless network program. County stops funding countywide project.
July 2001: Microwave loop installation complete for 800 MHz system.
October 2001: County begins talks with state regarding wireless network.
September 2005: Erie and Chautauqua counties chosen as test sites for wireless network.
September 2007: Testing begins, lasts two months.
January 2008: Erie County drops full partnership after lukewarm results of wireless network; state issues letter of default with M/A Com.
January 2009: State cancels contract; advisory committee discusses purchasing statewide wireless network; Tyco, now owners of the system, presents a proposal.
March 2010: Advisory committee presents the legislature with options; Tyco later revises options to proposal.
July 2012: Advisory committee prepares request for proposal for digital VHF narrowband system to comply with federal regulations.
Nonetheless, in 1995 the advisory committee, comprised of police, fire and public works personnel, began working on updating its out-of-date radio network, which lacked countywide communication and interoperability. Since first hinting at a full-blown conversion, the legislature has allocated $2.6 million for an update.
However, as the county began its implementation, the state in 2000 announced it was developing a wireless network of its own. The announcement came months after a group was hired to install new microwave loops in the county.
"We were all set to get going on changing our system to a 800 MHz system in the late '90s," Gerace said. "And then the state came in and said they would be doing their own statewide wireless network."
The county stopped its funding, and the advisory committee turned its attention to partnering with the statewide wireless network. The state teamed with tech company M/A Com in a $2 billion contract to produce the public-safety network.
However, almost 10 years into that program, the state pulled the plug - leaving the county, once again, back at square one.
"We were definitely left empty-handed," said Matt Trusso, communications project coordinator with the Sheriff's Office. "After all the effort we put into partnering with the state, for them to pull the plug left us with nothing."
The statewide system, tested in Erie and Chau-tauqua counties, was hastened after 9/11 and a 2006 manhunt for Ralph "Bucky" Phillips, who escaped from the Alden Correctional Facility and shot three New York State troopers - one of whom died.
Erie County backed out of the deal after failed tests in the Buffalo area, the Buffalo News reported at the time, though Gerace said the system worked wonders in Chautauqua County.
To make matters worse, the FCC mandated that all public and business radio systems operating in the 150 to 512 MHz radio band must cease operating using 25 kHz technology, considered outdated and inefficient.
The FCC is requiring all bands be reduced, or narrowbanded, to half their output by Jan. 1, 2013.
"We've known for a while that we were going to be narrowbanding our system," Gerace said. "Unless a pot of gold falls from the sky, there is no way we will be able to do this by then. We will have to seek a waiver to allow us extra time to become compliant."
A consultant has been brought aboard to develop a request for a narrowbanded VHF digital radio system, dubbed P25.
"By going to the P25 it allows us to be eligible for grant funding," Trusso said. "It only makes sense to go that route."
State and federal grants are currently being sought, Gerace noted; however, he said additional support from the county will be needed. And while the narrowbanded system will get the county in compliance, it will not act as a cure-all for gaps in communication.
"We've been trying to fix the issue," Gerace said. "We've made it work, but we've had to use duct tape and wires to keep everything working."
He added, "Hopefully this (digital system) will work well enough."