173 Bedford St. temporary police station
Sophie Culpepper / LexObserver

Lexington is one step closer to modernizing its decades-old public safety radio system, which is currently experiencing delays and dropoffs affecting some police and fire radio transmissions. On Tuesday, the Appropriation Committee voted 7-1 to authorize up to $750,000 from the Town’s Reserve Fund to replace key equipment.

The committee’s vote, which follows last week’s unanimous Select Board vote approving funding for this expenditure, completes the Town’s Reserve Fund authorization process. As of Wednesday, vendors have been notified that the Town will purchase the needed equipment, according to Fire Chief Derek Sencabaugh. Most of the new equipment will have an anticipated lifespan of roughly a decade.

The Town’s public safety radio system began causing unexpected problems for both the police and fire departments following the police move to a temporary station on 173 Bedford St. in early August, as previously reported. Those problems stem from a few different factors, including older radio equipment reliant on copper lines at the original police station that does not transmit seamlessly to fiber-line-based new equipment, and a recent decision by Verizon to stop servicing copper lines in the Lexington area as part of its bigger-picture strategy to modernize its own equipment. During years of preparation to transfer police radio equipment, which includes the Dispatch Console responsible for coordinating emergency responses, the Town’s radio partners expected the equipment to continue functioning well from the new temporary station. When that didn’t happen, after attempting short-term fixes over several weeks, the radio partners informed the Town’s public safety and facilities leadership that much of that older technology needed to be completely replaced to fix the dropoffs and delays occurring.

Even with this funding approved, the equipment will take an estimated six to eight months to arrive, in part due to ongoing pandemic-related supply chain issues. Once it arrives, it should take between two and three weeks to install across the nine sites where repairs are needed

Sencabaugh said that during the interim before the new equipment is in place, the departments feel that they can rely on a few different temporary back-up measures to keep their systems functioning safely. On the local level, police and fire departments can switch to each other’s frequencies when one frequency is working worse than the other. They can also communicate on regional-level frequencies as needed, he added, with the Fire Department relying on the METROFIRE District system and the Police Department doing the same with the BAPERN system in the Greater Boston Area. Additionally, both departments have built in additional precautionary protocols to double-check that transmitted messages have been received in full, such as by repeating messages back.

The Select Board previously authorized up to $50,000 in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds in addition to the reserve funding, leaving up to $800,000 available to purchase this new equipment. Estimates for the new equipment needed, according to quotes from AllComm and CyberComm, total just over $700,000, but the roughly $100,000 cushion saves the Town from having to authorize additional funding should costs unexpectedly increase. This expenditure is entirely separate from the new police station construction project. The Select Board plans to bring forward a request to replenish the Reserve Fund during Special Town Meeting in November.

At Tuesday’s meeting, Appropriation Committee Member Eric Michelson asked how the technicians could be sure replacing this equipment would fix the current problems, given that they had expected the equipment to continue working following the move to the temporary station. Sencabaugh responded that the Town had also run their plan by Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) officials during a meeting on Monday, and they had provided an additional layer of reassurance by reviewing and endorsing the Town’s plan to move forward.

The Town would have needed to update its radio equipment anyway in the next couple of years, Sencabaugh said, but the police move dramatically ramped up the urgency of replacing the current outdated equipment, which for the most part is at least 20 years old.

“This is a huge concern, obviously, for myself and [Police] Chief [Mike] McLean, but we’re at least moving in the right direction,” Sencabaugh said. “We’re getting there, and we know that this will be a short-lived problem. And ultimately, we will have a tremendously strong, safe system for years to come.”

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