A conversation with Vicki Helfrich on wireless commission

Vicki Helfrich is executive officer of the Mississippi Wireless Communication Commission, the group that oversees the implementation and maintenance of the Mississippi Wireless Communications Network (MSWIN). Helfrich, a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi, has held the position since February 2012. She recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about the commission and its efforts to provide improved wireless communications for first responders across the state.

What is the commission’s role?

“By statute we are required to oversee emergency communication. Specifically, we are charged with implementing and maintaining a statewide wireless communication system and to ensure that first responders have the ability to effectively communicate. Part of that is to ensure first responder agencies are operating on a common platform and have the ability to interoperate (or communicate) with one another.”

When did the state begin putting MSWIN in place, and does it cover the entire state?

“The wireless commission was created before Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They had a couple of board meetings prior to Katrina hitting in August. There was already a vision then that we needed toward having a unified statewide system rather than multiple silo systems. We had state agencies who were actually using multiple systems. We began the deployment of the system in 2007 or 2008. We finished deployment of the initial system in 2013. And yes, it was designed to be a statewide system that provides 97 percent mobile-area coverage across the state.”

Why was this system needed, or what was the impetus behind it?

“Following 9/11, there was a movement nationwide to move toward unification of public safety communication systems, due to communication issues that occurred during the 9/11 attacks. We had similar problems following Hurricane Katrina.”

What is mobile area coverage?

“You have mobile units and portable units when you talk about radios. Mobile radios, which are the units in vehicles, have more strength. When you have a handheld or portable radio, you have to have more sites to have more coverage. We’re only ever going to have the funds to build out the mobile system.”

Also, what do you mean when you say moving from silo systems? What is a silo system? 

“This is when a fire department is on one communications system, the police department is one system and the county is on another, and they’re unable to talk between systems.”

So, with MSWIN, is everyone on the same band?

“When someone joins the system, we provide them with their own ‘talk groups’ for them to use within their division. We require when an agency joins, that they have 40 special event talk groups programmed into their radios, which are used for interoperable communications. We do that so, if we have an incident where multiple state and local agencies respond, they can move to a special event talk group and communicate with each other.”

So, a talk group is like a band for each department?

“We call them channels or frequencies, but yes.” 

Does everyone in the tri-county area use MSWIN?

“Everyone in Rankin County is on the system. The Jackson (Medgar-Wiley Evers International) Airport just joined. All of Hinds County is on the system, including the city of Jackson. In Madison, we have the Madison fire and police departments and the Ridgeland fire and police departments, and we expect the remainder of agencies in the county to join shortly. We are building a tower in Canton to help with indoor portable coverage. Even though we’ve finalized the build out of the system, we have some federal funds left over so we are trying to improve portable coverage where we can.

“The Madison County Sheriff’s Department and the county’s emergency management agency are connected to MSWIN, but they use their own systems as well. Our hope is that once we get the tower in Canton, they will transition over.”

When will the Canton tower be completed?

“Sometime during the first part of 2020 - the first six months.” 

How much did it cost to put the system in place?

“If you look at all the money put into the system, including what it cost to build it, the cost to operate it and the costs for entities to buy radios to tie into it, it totals up to $437 million.”

How was the system funded?

“We received $206 million in federal funds and $124 million in state allocations. That’s the money we received to date to build the system and operate the system. Local entities spent $107 million to purchase radios and equipment to use the system, which we consider in-kind contributions.”

What is the lifespan of the system?

“We have had a contract with Motorola to upgrade the software and hardware every (few) years. We updated around 2017 and 2018 and we’re going to update the software again in 2021. It’s just like any IT system. You have to upgrade the software to keep it up to date.

“When we update the system in 2021, it will be the most current system available.” 

How many agencies have tied into the system since it went live?

“Over 590.”

How many entities in the state have not come onto the system?

“It’s hard for us to say. A lot of what we’re looking at now are volunteer fire and police departments, and smaller agencies that we might not know about. The two largest counties that have not joined are Harrison and Jackson County.”

Why would a county not join MSWIN? Are there any disadvantages to joining?

“I don’t see any disadvantage to coming on. When counties and localities are used to running their own systems, there is sometimes a lack of understanding when it comes to control issues. They think they may lose control of their communications systems and that is not the case. I understand their concerns. It boils down to fear of losing control.”

What are the system’s annual maintenance costs?

“We requested around $10.6 million from the legislature to maintain the system in the last fiscal year.”

How many people are on MSWIN’s staff? ‘

“We currently have five staff members including myself. We have the ability to hire up to 10. Our administrative costs are less than 10 percent (of what we asked for from the legislature). Ninety percent of the funding we receive is contractually obligated to keep the system up and operational.

“We work for a 16-member commission, which is made up of representatives of state and local public safety agencies. We also have eight legislative advisors, via statute.” 

Do counties and other local agencies incur any costs to join the system?

“Just the price of their equipment. We don’t charge user fees for governmental entities. That was a huge concern in the beginning and a reason a lot of entities did not want to get on the system. They did not want to pay a user fee. We worked with the legislature to explain that user fees are a barrier. The goal here is to get everyone on the same system so they can talk to one another.”

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