Orange County needs a major update to its emergency communications systems, but how, when, where, and how much it will cost depend on crucial decisions by county officials in the near future. In the balance could hang the high-speed internet for underserved and unserved populations as well as the safety of emergency medical services workers and the people they serve.

In an emergency, communication is key, but Orange County EMS has had difficulty with that. Ten years ago, the county switched from an analog radio system to a digital one, which had an unintended consequence: EMS workers couldn’t use their radios inside some buildings.

“Our radio system utilized by fire, rescue, and police is outdated and routinely places our emergency workers at risk,” Sheriff Charles Blackwood told reporters last week.

The sheriff, up for reelection Tuesday, says he’s worried about what might happen in the case of a terrorist attack or school shooting.

In schools, hospitals, and public buildings, the weak radio signal has trouble penetrating walls. In these cases, EMS workers rely on cell phones to stay connected. Blackwood warns that cell-phone lines can become jammed in mass emergencies, adding another hurdle for rescuers.

In 2007, the county joined in the state’s $83 million emergency communications initiative, VIPER, which stands for Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders. The county contributed new interfaces, and VIPER increased the number of EMS workers who could talk at once by giving the county access to more radio frequencies. It made organizing calls easier because they could be routed by someone sitting at a computer.

But the state and county have different needs for the system.

“The highway patrol uses car-mounted radios from the roads, which is a very different situation than using a handheld in a building,” says Orange County emergency services system technician Pat Campbell.

The state has little incentive to solve the interbuilding communication problem, Campbell says. This means Orange County is on its own.

Federal Engineering, the county’s consultant, is scheduled to release a request for proposals to update the system in September. When lawmakers receive bids, they’ll have to weigh the costas much as $20 million, according to Commissioner Earl McKeeagainst the urgency.

“I’m not willing to pull money away from other needed services in order to address this on a narrow timeframe,” says McKee.

At the same time the county is considering an upgrade, so is the state. In April, the General Assembly’s Program Evaluation Division recommended an appropriation that would keep VIPER running while replacing equipment and upgrading outdated software.

No matter what the state does, the county still needs new communications towers to increase coverage and improve signal strength. These can be expensive eyesores, but communities might get something out of itnot just improved EMS capabilities, but also faster internet service.

And that, McKee says, may be a way to reduce costs for a new communications system: selling space on towers to internet providers.

In 2014, Orange County identified underserved or unserved internet coverage areas along with sites for fiber towers to increase internet speeds. Campbell says these same sites could be shared for EMS towers. The locations have not yet been made public.