The Joint Emergency Communications Operations Board (JECOB) met Friday to discuss the county’s emergency digital radio system. The board acts as an advisory to the Emergency Communications Center (ECC/911). The center provides dispatching services for all county and municipal law enforcement agencies, fire departments, emergency medical services and a variety of other public safety agencies. The new radios system is experiencing problems connecting with the center, which are the same problems that occurred with the old system.
Emergency service agencies are worried about their safety.
Those in attendance at Tuesday’s meeting included representatives from the fire departments, law enforcement, ambulance service and Palco, the company who was hired by Kenwood to work with the county to help with the transition of the new radio system. Kenwood sold the system to the county.
Sheriff Wallace Whittaker, who is in charge of the new radio systems installation, started the meeting off by discussing the systems programming issues, which are with the actual hand-held radios themselves. According to Whittaker and Dave Palco, owner of the company working with the county, a lot of the radios still need tweaking and reprogramming. Some of the radios have already been worked on.
The biggest problem with the radio system is its lack of three additional tower sites that were included in the contract between the county and Kenwood. The new system is considered a multi-site network, requiring towers on Reservoir Hill in Russellville, a tower in the north and south part of the county and one mid way if the system is to work correctly. The system installation has three phases, of which the county approved two, leaving out the additional towers other than on Reservoir Hill. This, said many fighters and police officers, is what is causing the problems.
“I have had several complaints, some of the radios are working and some are not,” said Whittaker to Palco. Also, there are many radios that will not work inside buildings. There was a fire in the Auburn area over the weekend and it was reported that firefighters could not get a signal while in the burning structure.
Whittaker admitted to those in attendance at the meeting that he knew the system needed the other towers to work properly, but said there was no money out there at this time to buy them. The county has already spent over $600,000 on the new system. Whittaker intended to apply for funds from Homeland Security last go around, but he says that money was pulled. He intends to apply in April of next year. That is six months firefighters and police officers in certain areas of the county will be sweating their safety, they say.
According to Kenwood, each additional site will cost $483,000. He and Palco disagreed with that cost assessment saying that price is based on more repeaters (channels) than the county needs. Plus it includes tower sites and buildings to put the equipment in. According to Whittaker, the county already has handshake deals with existing tower sites in Auburn and Lewisburg, which would cut back on that cost.
Palco said Friday that his company will soon be merging with another company called VEI Communications. He suggested the county ask Kenwood if this new company could help. According to Whittaker over the weekend, Kenwood agreed. Palco said VEI was very knowledgeable on radio systems. This, however, will not alleviate the problem of additional coverage through three more towers.
Whittaker expressed to Palco that he was not happy he cannot get through to Kenwood right away when he calls for problems. He said communication is bad and in order to fix these problems there needs to be better communication.
Firefighters from Lewisburg, Auburn and Olmstead were at the Friday meeting reiterating that they felt the problem was more towers and they needed to be put up to fix the issues. Lewisburg Fire Chief Eddie Schweers said someone was going to get hurt or die as a result because they would not be able to communicate through the radios and get help and that waiting could be dangerous. Palco agreed with the firefighters that the system was built to have additional towers, but he was hoping that reprogramming the radios to start with may help a little.