Federal law could require very expensive changes to local 911 systems

Federal law could require very expensive changes to local 911 systems

PITTSBURGH — Allegheny County's state-of-the-art 911 center is where more than a dozen dispatchers respond to thousands of calls daily. When they dispatch an ambulance or police to a scene, most times they do so on a spectrum of the radio system known as the T-band.

"That frequency gives us the capability to communicate with all of the first responders countywide," said Allegheny County EMS Chief Matt Brown.

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But according to federal law, the T-band is set to be auctioned to the highest bidder in a little more than a year. It's forcing Allegheny County and departments across the country to find a new way to operate their 911 systems.

"That could involve 50-60 new radio towers that don't exist today," said Brown. "That whole process of obtaining permits for those spaces and having them installed. The funding for that would be well over $250 million."

That's money Brown says the county doesn't have, likely requiring help from taxpayers to foot the bill. The Federal Communications Commission is in charge of selling the T-band, but officials recently raised concerns to Congress.


A recent report from the Government Accountability Office showed that the FCC "concluded that all t-band auction scenarios would fail."  Officials also told Congress "The agency will conduct the auction unless the law is amended."

Congressman Mike Doyle, D-Forrest Hills, said selling and replacing it would end up costing significantly more than leaving it in place and said that is something the GAO report made clear.

"Where does Allegheny County come up with a quick $250 million to replace the T-band?" said Rep. Doyle. "If we don't have the money to replace the T-band, how does that degrade our response times?"

Earlier this month, a bill to keep the T-band from being sold was introduced in Congress. But Brown doesn't have the luxury of taking a wait-and-see approach.

"That process alone could take a year or so just to be able to figure out how to make it work," said Brown.

He's hoping for an answer soon before the county has to start preparing to create a new 911 system.