New NHP, NDOT radio system still incomplete

It's been nearly three years since the Legislature appropriated $2.6 million to build a series of mountaintop radio relay stations to make an 800- megahertz radio system work across the vast interior of Nevada. To date, not one of the 11 proposed sites has been completed.

The Nevada Department of Information Technology, Department of Transportation and other state agencies and officials, including the governor's office, have worked to get those sites built since the end of the 2003 Legislature.

But, according to technology department Director Terry Savage, they've been frustrated by a variety of forces, including bad weather, that permits building only for a short period each summer and by radio-work contractors working on much bigger, more profitable contracts in other states.

But Savage and Robert Chisel, of NDOT, said the biggest problem has been getting permits to build and bring power to the summit sites from the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service.

They said a process which 10 years ago took about 90 days now requires more than two years in many cases.

Dave McTeer, information systems manager for the Department of Administration, said the problem at one of their favored sites atop Hickison Peak near Austin is a good example. BLM said it could put the radio system there, but couldn't bury lines to power the equipment because digging along the road would disturb the habitat of an endangered pygmy rabbit.

"We said how about putting up poles, and they said no - raptors would sit on the poles and swoop down on the bunnies."

As a result, he said, the site will be solar powered with a propane generator backup.

But they said the sites are finally getting built. Work on Hickison, Maggie near Denio in northern Humboldt County and Penn Hill near Mountain City north of Elko should be finished as soon as weather permits construction to resume this spring.

Because of federal restrictions on bringing power to the peaks, all three will be solar with propane generator backup systems.

A fourth site at Caliente is ready to be installed as soon as weather permits pouring its concrete pad. NDOT crews will do that installation themselves.

And they said they are nearly ready to build most of the remaining sites.

Completion of the relay sites is vital to eliminate areas where Highway Patrol troopers still can't get a radio signal. NHP Col. Dave Hosmer said recently there are places where, if a trooper spots an accident, he or she must drive five miles or more before he or she can get radio contact to report it. He said those dark areas are dangerous for troopers.

NHP Major Bob Wideman said for that reason, troopers in those areas are using both the old 150 MHz radio system and the new 800 MHz system.

Wideman said with the 800 system operating in the Reno-Carson City area, in Las Vegas and along almost all of Interstate 80, the vast majority of calls are covered.

"If a significant event happens in the wrong place, we're going to be in trouble," he said.

Which is why, until they're happy with the coverage, he said, both sets of radios will remain in patrol cars in those areas so that, between the two, troopers can make radio contact when necessary.

Chisel said it's not as though there aren't any relay sites up and running. He said over the past decade, NDOT has put up nearly 80 sites, which provide coverage for most of the state. The coverage became more critical, however, after lawmakers decided to move NHP to the NDOT system in 2003. That need prompted the 11 new sites.

"With any system, you'll never get 100 percent coverage," he said.

"If you have 95 percent coverage, the question is what is that 5 percent?" McTeer said. "If it's in 100-yard sections, that's no problem. But if you have a 5- to 10-mile stretch, you'd end up addressing that."

The biggest problem areas, all agreed, are in central Nevada along Highway 50 south to Rachel and along the eastern border from Pioche to Ely. Chisel said there are probably a few 20 mile stretches in central Nevada where no radio signal is available.

Chisel and McTeer said BLM and the Forest Service aren't the only stumbling blocks. The U.S. Air Force nixed one proposed site because it was too close to the secret Area 51 airbase. But they said the Air Force has agreed to let them partner on a site at Mount Irish in that area.

For numerous other sites throughout the state, Chisel said, they are in partnership with Nevada Power, Sierra Pacific Power and a number of cell phone companies, which have many of the same requirements since they use similar radio frequency bands.

In the Las Vegas and Reno-Carson City areas, the problem isn't availability of sites, it's the number of channels installed at those sites. Chisel said they will double the number of channels in the Las Vegas area this summer. Wideman said he is hoping they can add more channels in Carson City as well.

The budget for the radio stations is only a small part of the system's cost. The state has spent more than $15 million on the system itself.

• Contact reporter Geoff Dornan at or 687-8750.


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