With the budgeting process for local governments for 2020 already beginning, officials with the Stutsman County Communications Center are becoming concerned about the costs of upgrades to the dispatch equipment.

"We're still waiting on numbers," said Jerry Bergquist, Stutsman County emergency manager and dispatch center manager. "It's not really a bid process though because the state has selected Motorola."

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North Dakota awarded a contract to Motorola to provide equipment for a statewide update to the public service communications system. Local governments are authorized to purchase equipment through the state contract for items such as dispatch consoles and portable and mobile radios.

Bergquist said according to the state bid, equipment upgrades to the Stutsman County Communications Center dispatch consoles would cost about $297,000. Voters in 2018 approved an increase of 50 cents per month to the $1 per month tax on landline and cellphones to fund the 911 program. That increase took effect in February of this year. The tax is expected to bring the balance of the Stutsman County 911 fund to $300,000 by the end of 2019. Despite the balance, Bergquist is concerned about how much it will cost not only for the equipment but also to install the new consoles.

Or Stutsman, Barnes and Richland counties, counties that cooperate on dispatch equipment, could seek bids for a different system that would not necessarily be able to communicate with the state system.

Bergquist is concerned initial costs could be higher for being in the Division of State Radio system.

"It could cost more in the short term," Berguist said, referring to purchasing Motorola equipment and being part of the State Radio network. "But it could save labor costs down the road. We could share night dispatchers with Barnes or Richland counties."

If Stutsman County stays with the state system and the Motorola equipment, it would also provide statewide access, allowing the local dispatch center to communicate with officers over the radio even if the officers are out of the area.

"If we created our own regional system it could probably only connect to the three counties," Bergquist said. "We have to make this work for Barnes and Richland counties also so we can all support each other."

The intent is to create a system where dispatchers in any of the three counties could cover calls and dispatch first responders in the event of a high call volume or an equipment failure in the other counties, Bergquist said. This could be accomplished with the Motorola equipment or with third party equipment as long as all three counties utilize the same equipment.

The decision will be made by the three county commissions individually.

"For the counties to be able to dispatch for each other it has to be across the board," he said, indicating all counties would have to agree to using the same equipment.

At this time, 911 calls can be routed to another county but dispatchers can't communicate directly with first responders in another county.

Bergquist said the current dispatch consoles have been in use around the clock for more than 14 years. He said they are specialized and proprietary computers that control what radio frequency a dispatcher uses to contact a first responder. Without the consoles, each dispatcher would have a separate radio and microphone for each agency and frequency.

While separate radios and microphones would be unworkable, the other options are expensive, Bergquist said.

"I already have sticker shock over the entire system," he said.

There are also possible additional costs.

The phone system that handles 911 and other calls to the dispatch center is approaching the end of its technological life, Bergquist said. Estimated costs for Stutsman County would be about $132,000.

"We would have to repay the general fund from the 911 fee over a couple of years," Bergquist said, referring to how that expense could be covered.

First responders will also face expenses for upgrading the mobile radios in their units and the portable radios carried by officers and deputies.

Scott Edinger, Jamestown chief of police, said his department is planning to budget for new radios in 2021.

"The state is going to cover the first $1,500 of each radio already registered with State Radio," he said. "We have to cover the rest of the cost."

Edinger said the amount the city would have to cover would depend on the prices of law enforcement radios in 2021.

All other first responder agencies, ambulances, law enforcement and fire departments would have to go through a similar process to upgrade radios.

Bergquist said the intent is to replace at least the dispatch consoles yet this year. He hoped more details would be available in June from the state of North Dakota and Motorola so departments can begin making plans.

"It still all depends on what those costs look like," he said.