MANATEE -- Manatee and Sarasota counties could save an estimated $10 million when purchasing new emergency radio systems if it is done as a joint project.
The new system would also improve how law officers, firefighters and other first responders communicate during emergencies, officials say.
"We're talking about an expenditure of between $5 million and $15 million for each county," estimated Bill Hutchison, retired former Manatee County public safety director and now a part-time strategic planner. "Instead of $30 million, we might be able to do it for $20 million combined."
The counties must replace two separate outmoded systems, said Hutchison. A single, unified state-of-the-art system could replace old gear in each county.
A common radio system would present huge operational synergies, not to mention multimillion-dollar savings for taxpayers, he said.
Commissioners in Manatee will decide Tuesday whether to OK up to $50,000 for a consultant to evaluate plans for replacing the individual systems with a unified network.
Sarasota County is on a similar path "to help us determine what we need and
the approximate costs," said Commissioner Christine Robinson.
"What we've done is agreed to split the consultant fee up to $100,000 -- we're hoping, obviously, we can come in cheaper than $100,000," said Sarasota County Fire Chief Mike Tobias. "We'll split it 50-50.
"Absolutely, this makes great sense for the citizens of this area. More and more, county lines are more and more artificial," the chief said. "We work with Manatee fire and EMS regularly on mutual aid, and when the bad guys commit a crime, they don't stop at the county line. It's just a much, much better system for the citizens."
Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube is also looking forward to a joint endeavor.
"Right now, the radio system we have is so outdated, you can't even get replacement or repair parts," Steube said. "We all need to be working toward this as quickly as possible."
Hutchison and Sarasota officials have been meeting for about five years, but the Manatee commission's allocation of money would mark its first official contribution.
"There's a lot of engineering, planning and budgeting and infrastructure creation that go into replacing the radio system," said Hutchison.
The complex network would include vehicle-based radio units called mobiles, handheld units and radio towers in both counties.
Other benefits of a joint system include resolving an incompatibility problem that prevents direct communication between the two counties; more penetrating, reliable radio coverage with coordinated frequencies; and joint operation of 911 centers.
"Of all the tools they have in their quiver, to any first responder, the most important tool you have to do your job is your radio," said Hutchison. "It's your umbilical cord."
Sara Kennedy, Herald reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7031. Follow her on Twitter @sarawrites.