The county’s new digital radio system seems to have more problems than just lacking additional towers that appear in the project plan, but were not erected.
A lack of programming numerous hand-held radios used by emergency service agencies may have something to do with the poor reception being experienced by firefighters and law enforcement in several areas of the county - at least that is what Sheriff Wallace Whittaker told the fiscal court Tuesday.
Numerous firefighters and police disagree, holding the major blame on lack of towers.
Whittaker said this has been a major headache, one which was handed to him. He admitted having very little knowledge about the system when he was initially asked to oversee the installation.
“This system will never be 100 percent, but there are big problems and we need to address them,” said Whittaker to the court members.
The county purchased the new digital system three years ago when problems surfaced with the old and outdated analog system concerning connection issues with the Emergency Communications Center (ECC/911).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. When firefighters, police officers and ambulance drivers can’t get through to dispatch, it become a safety issues.
Six hundred thousand dollars later and the new system is experiencing the same problems connecting with the center.
“Are we going to need repeaters?” asked Fifth District Magistrate Jo Orange to Whittaker.
Repeaters are what goes on the towers allowing better reception.
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 only 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.
Whittaker told Orange “yes,” that down the line the county was going to need those additional towers, one in Lewisburg and one in Auburn.
“Can we afford to wait?” asked Orange.
Whittaker said Palco, the company contracting with Kenwood International to handle the glitches in the new system, had been bought out by a company called VEI Radio Systems. Kenwood is the company who sold the system to the county. Whittaker said Kenwood has allowed VEI to intercede and help take care of some of the issues. This does not include, however, funding and putting up the additional towers needed.
“Three years ago we were told if we didn’t get a new system someone was going to get hurt,” said Magistrate Orange. “We’ve spent all this money. I know it is frustrating to you (Whittaker). I don’t want to spend any more money, but I want a good system. I don’t want anyone getting killed.”
Whittaker reiterated that at some point the system would need two more repeaters (towers). For firefighters in Auburn and Lewisburg areas that point is now.
Whittaker suggested to the court allowing VEI to come in and finish programming the hand-held radios first and then going from there.
“We do need to get this resolved as quickly as possible,” said Whittaker, adding the county needed to look into hiring a grant writer because they were missing out on a lot of money out there that could possible pay for additional towers.
It is Whittakers plan to apply for Homeland Security grants in April 2013. However, those grants, if awarded, would not be released until the fall of 2013. And there is no guaranteee the federal monies will even be available.
Judge/Executive Logan Chick said he had attended a recent Joint Emergency Communications Operations Board (JECOB) meeting where the system was discussed. The meeting was held in the sheriff’s department located in the heart of downtown Russellville. He said he asked a police officer to “key up” his radio, but it would not work. Radios not working inside buildings is another issue surrounding the system.
Cost for two additional towers is sketchy at this time. Whittaker said the quote given for each additional tower is to high at over $400,000 each. He said the cost will be much lower because the quote included buildings and equipment. According to Whittaker, there is already a handshake agreement to use an old water tower in Lewisburg and a tower owned by Logan Telephone Coop. in Auburn, which would cut down on the costs considerably.