WYDOT director discusses WyoLink

SUBLETTE COUNTY – The Sublette County Board of Commissioners met with the director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) on June 5 in Pinedale, hoping to get some clarity on WyoLink – Wyoming’s ongoing effort to coordinate a statewide, integrated communications system.

The county has struggled to move forward with WYDOT – a state agency that inherited WyoLink last summer – when it comes to WyoLink, as the county’s pleas for improved coverage have not gained traction, particularly when it comes to mountainous areas of the Rim, Bondurant and the Kendall Valley in the Upper Green River Valley.

A group of first responders from Sublette County – including Sublette County Unified Fire Chief Shad Cooper and Sheriff K.C. Lehr – as well as some elected officials, initiated a meeting with WYDOT Director Bill Panos in April but came away from the meeting voicing their frustration at the lack of receptivity to suggested improvements.

“That meeting was not fruitful,” Cooper reiterated June 5.

Panos, instead, wanted to meet directly with the commissioners to discuss the WyoLink issue.

Panos acknowledged some of the problems that have been plaguing the WyoLink effort for years, including a lack of accountability, organizational issues, billing problems and mistrust by counties. He inherited supervision of WyoLink last summer.

“The program wasn’t working as well as it should, and in some regards, still isn’t,” Panos told the commissioners June 5. “So we made all these changes to start to get the thing streamlined and functioning.”

One of them was to rebuild some of the trust with counties across the state, which is what prompted his visit earlier this month.

But in reality, Wyoming’s 23 counties represent a small portion of the 340 organizations on the WyoLink program and they include federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management as well as county first responders like EMS, law enforcement and fire, and even some school districts.

“WyoLink is a statewide digital trunked VHF P-25 compliant public safety communications system designed to coordinate and integrate communications between state, local, and federal public safety agencies,” WYDOT explains on its website. “Whether the need is for state troopers to access data such as driver’s records, for firefighters to obtain location maps for fire response, or for the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security to respond to hazmat spills, all network users have one thing in common. They need a communications system that offers uncompromising quality and reliability.”

The problem in Sublette County, however, is that the topography of the land makes “quality coverage” a challenge.

What’s more, local users have not seen the improvements that have been promised by the state become a reality.

According to WYDOT’s chief technology officer Pat Lewis, those improvements should be completed within two years.

“Construction, all across the state, starts this summer and will go on for two more years,” he said at the meeting.

WYDOT added $16 million to its budget for construction of 16 towers, and the agency is currently in the process of prioritizing which ones get built first.

“We should have them prioritized … by the beginning of August,” Lewis said, as WYDOT looks “for low-hanging fruit.”

County officials wondered what effect it might have on WYDOT’s priority list of towers if “a community or county” opted out of WyoLink and built its own system.

“Would you put them at the end or at the beginning, knowing that they weren’t going to participate in your program,” commissioner Mack Rawhouser asked.

“What you won’t have input to, I guess, if you’re not participating is you’re not going to tell us where we’re going to put (the towers),” Panos said. “We’ll be building it without your engagement, but that’s not ideal. What is ideal is you’re going to get interoperability at the lowest price.”

But county officials weren’t so sure on that price.

WYDOT has been sending out “faux bills” for eight quarters, as the agency tries to get the kinks worked out of the system. According to WYDOT, Sublette County has averaged about $7,000 per quarter – or about $28,000 a year – but WyoLink will be moving to a “pay as you use” system soon, which means users will be charged each time a button is pushed on the radios.

According to county clerk Mary Lankford, the annual total could be “more like $100,000” once the new billing takes effect.

Once Panos finished up his presentation and left, county officials still voiced their skepticism of the WyoLink system, and were not altogether impressed with Panos’ update.

“We’re pretty much where we were when the director was here last time (in April),” commissioner Dr. David Burnett said.

Commissioner Tom Noble labeled it a “stall tactic to keep us on board,” as Sublette – and other counties – continues to debate whether its worth joining the WyoLink system or building up their own communications infrastructure.

The commissioners asked that the county’s first-responder agencies compile a list of things that need to happen by WYDOT for WyoLink to be a viable option and the commissioners will act accordingly.

“Put together what needs to happen for this to work, give it to us,” commissioner Joel Bousman said. “We, as a commission, will detail that with these (WYDOT) guys, who say they want to talk to us and see what kind of feedback we get.”

The commissioners expect to meet with WYDOT again in August.

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