STANFORD — Lincoln County magistrates seem to be largely in agreement that digital radio upgrades for the county's sheriff and other emergency responders are essential, despite a hefty price tag.

Fiscal court members met with emergency management and other public officials for about an hour Friday to discuss how the county can meet a fast-approaching deadline to comply with new Federal Communications Commission regulations that go into effect Jan. 1.

Radio communications for organizations like police and fire departments are supposed to operate on either digital or "narrow-band" signals by the new year, though Lincoln Emergency Management Director Don Gilliam has said he believes there will likely be a grace period for Lincoln County if it can show that it's making an effort to comply.

Upgrading to narrow-band technology would be very cheap, but radio communications in the county could suffer as a result, Gilliam said.

Radio dead spots that already plague some corners of Lincoln County could be made worse by narrow-banding, Bluegrass 911 Director Russ Clark said.

Magistrates and county officials were mostly in agreement that narrow-banding would only be a temporary solution, because the county will eventually have to switch to digital no matter what.

The digital option is much more expensive than narrow-banding, but it also provides much-improved communication coverage, Gilliam said.

It could cost the county about $50,000 to fully upgrade radio systems for the sheriff's department, Lincoln Emergency Management, the county coroner's office and county constables, according to a proposal from Southern Communications and Consultants Inc.

Gilliam told magistrates the county could probably save some money by narrow-banding some radios for constables or coroners and purchasing fewer digital units. An acceptable system-wide upgrade that doesn't substantially sacrifice responder safety could possibly cost around $40,000 he said.

Gilliam said it comes down to whether the county wants a solution that meets the federal mandate with minimal cost — narrow-banding — or a solution that improves responder communication and safety — digital.

"Why would we want to make the dollar at this point the overriding factor?" Magistrate David Faulkner said. "The safety issue to me is more overriding than the dollar figure."

Magistrate Bill Dyehouse said he felt going solely with narrow-banding when the county knows it would have to go digital in the end anyway would be "throwing money away."

"Rather than just be compliant, I would rather be safe and go with the good stuff," Dyehouse said.

Magistrate Johnnie Padgett said the county's budget may be tight right now, but there's no other option when it comes to first responder safety.

"I can't believe we're in a discussion this long over something we need to have," he said. "Just do it. We need to do it. It's got to be done."

Magistrate Joe Stanley supported the digital upgrade as well.

"I think we do need to make this upgrade at least (for the sheriff)," he said.

Magistrates agreed to ask Gilliam to put together a proposal with a specific price tag and bring it to the next fiscal court meeting for approval.