Fewer firefighters in the Tucson metro area will have radios capable of contacting other police and fire departments in an emergency than originally planned.
When it goes live at the end of next year, the Pima County Wireless Integrated Network (PCWIN) is supposed to provide a critical communications link between 30 police and fire agencies in Pima County.
But recently five northwest-side fire departments "decided not to fully participate in the project," project leader and Sheriff's Capt. Paul Wilson said in a memo to County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry.
The Northwest, Golder Ranch, Avra Valley, Picture Rocks and Three Points fire districts each ordered only a handful of radios.
"This last minute change of direction was unexpected and disappointing," Wilson said in the memo.
The northwest-area agencies said they're still on board, but merely taking a toe-in-the-water approach instead of diving in to the new system.
"The appearance is that we're backpedaling," said Northwest Fire District IT manager Paul Wright. "That's really not the reality."
Pima County has up to $18 million in voter-approved bond funds and $8.5 million in federal grants available to buy the radios.
PCWIN estimated the regionwide system would need 7,000 radios.
But when the county was getting ready to order the radios, it asked police and fire agencies for a count of how many handheld and mobile radios they wanted.
The answer was 748 fewer radios than the county planned to buy.
The Northwest Fire District ordered only 15 radios - less than 10 percent of the radios it originally anticipated needing.
Northwest Fire District has always intended to keep operating its own radio system, said Wright, because Northwest mostly interacts with the Marana Police Department, and that agency isn't participating in the new system at all.
The best way to use both systems is to get dual-band radios, Wright said, but the agency didn't have enough time between learning the cost of the dual-band radios and the deadline to place its order to come up with the extra money.
"We didn't really want to order 200 some odd radios that we wouldn't be able to fully use," Wright said.
For now, it'll have one PCWIN radio in each command vehicle, he said.
"We think it's a sorely needed project ... but we did want to take a toe-in-the-water approach," Wright said.
Golder Ranch ordered 31 radios, about a quarter of the number it was previously thought to need.
Golder Ranch Fire Chief Randy Karrer said his agency is completely committed to the regional radio project, and it will have enough radios to put one in every vehicle.
The agency didn't want to get a radio for each emergency worker until it is sure the radios cover all the areas it responds to, including parts of Pinal County, he said.
Picture Rocks, Three Points, Avra Valley ordered two, three or four radios, respectively.
In all, about 6,200 radios will be part of the new system, mostly in Pima County and city of Tucson agencies.
That adds up to a higher cost for the county.
All the agencies will share the cost of operating the system based on how many radios they have, Wilson said.
With fewer radios in the system, the operating cost per radio goes up and agencies with more radios shoulder more of the cost, he said.
The county is also paying the operating costs for tiny agencies that can't afford to be part of the regional system.
The monthly operating fees for the Mt. Lemmon, Ajo-Gibson, Arivaca, Elephant Head, Helmet Peak and Why fire departments will cost the county $53,000 a year.
Golder Ranch will save nearly $34,000 a year on radio operating fees by having fewer PCWIN radios.
The agency didn't want to take on a large ongoing expense for maintaining new radios when its old radios are working fine, Karrer said.
By not accepting the county bond funds for new PCWIN radios, Northwest Fire is saving the county money, Wright said.
The agency also saves itself more than $77,000 a year.
Original estimate Actual order
Tucson Police Department 2,209 2,000
Northwest Fire District 214 15
Tucson Fire Department 676 540
Golder Ranch Fire District 118 31
Avra Valley Fire District 57 4
Contact reporter Becky Pallack at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4346. On Twitter @BeckyPallack.