New E911 system not just for Sheriff’s office

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Part of Isle of Wight County’s proposed 3-cent tax increase is to cover the cost of a new public safety radio system.

Some residents, however, are under the misconception that the E911 radio system — estimated to cost $11 million — is only for the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office — said Sheriff Mark Marshall, who has taken the lead on the project.

The county’s first responders, however, support the need for a new communication system, which is used by all of Isle of Wight County’s fire and rescue agencies, the Isle of Wight County Sheriff’s Office as well as the Windsor Police Department. The Smithfield Police Department has its own frequency and maintains a separate system, but all agencies, including Smithfield, uses dispatching services through the county’s combined emergency communications center. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

“There is an absolute need for a new radio system,” said Capt. Brian Carroll with the Isle of Wight County Volunteer Rescue Squad.

“It’s about coverage, coverage, coverage,” said Carroll, who pointed out that outlying areas, as well as larger buildings such as Smithfield High School, cannot receive radio transmissions, or get them with difficulty.

“We don’t need a loss of life to justify a radio system,” he said.

Windsor District Supervisor Joel Acree, who also served as fire chief for the Carrollton Volunteer Fire Department for more than 20 years, recalled that in the late 1990s, two Chesapeake firefighters died in a fire at an auto parts store.

While there were multiple failures, communications broke down with the crew inside the building and no one heard their call for help, according to a 1996 Homeland Security report on the incident.

“At approximately 11:49 a.m., almost 20 minutes after the initial dispatch time, (Firefighter Specialist John) Hudgins radioed that he and (Firefighter Specialist Frank) Young could not get out of the building. Battalion 2 radioed back that he could not understand their transmission,” according to the report.

Carrollton Volunteer Fire Department Chief Tim Nunez said that the incompatibility between the radios used by Isle of Wight, Newport News and Suffolk is a continuous problem.

Carrollton lies between Suffolk and Newport News, but there is no way to communicate with them by radio, Nunez said.

If Suffolk calls on Carrollton for support on a structure fire, for example, the Carrollton firefighters have to pick up radios provided by Suffolk so the two agencies can communicate, Nunez said.

If Carrollton and Newport News are responding to an incident on the James River Bridge, Newport News can switch to Carrollton’s system, but there are flaws and they can’t hear us, Nunez said.

The current radio equipment makes it very difficult to communicate with other jurisdictions, Nunez said.

Chief Judson West with the Carrsville Volunteer Fire Department thinks new radios are necessary due to dead spots and the need to continually put electronic “band-aids” to keep it operational.

“For fire/rescue personnel working in life or death situations, this is not an option we should be considering. Imagine firefighters trapped in a burning building, medics needing assistance and not having the ability to call for help,” West said.

Deputy Chief Jerry Hackney with the Smithfield Volunteer Fire Department said there are areas of the county where first responders cannot talk to each other.

The problem is magnified if firefighters are in a building and they are working on inadequate radios that cannot transmit outside the structure, Hackney said.

If firefighters are working inside a house that’s on fire, they need to be able to talk to each other, he said.

No one is on the same level playing field as far as communications equipment goes, Hackney said the system that Marshall has described as “hodgepodge.”

“I appreciate the Sheriff’s Office for spearheading this,” he said.

Newport District Supervisor William McCarty said he’s had many questions about the radio system from residents and reiterates that it’s not just for the sheriff’s office.

“There’s no doubt that our communications system is antiquated and puts our first responders in danger. It’s not just a sheriff’s office project and affects all first responders across the board,” McCarty said.

The question is how and when to pay for it, and “that’s the struggle we’re going to have,” he said.

“I’m not one to jump on saying let’s raise taxes to fund the things we need,” McCarty said, adding that the county needs to re-examine other county efficiencies as a way to save money.

Andrea Clontz, Isle of Wight emergency coordinating liaison, said the outdated system is particularly lacking near the northeastern end of the county and closest to the Surry nuclear power plant, does not meet industry standards and is failing.

“The areas of the county nearest the nuclear plant, have been identified with some of the poorest (or no) public safety radio coverage and as a critical deficiency of the current system,” she said, adding that the age of the equipment forces radio service shops to find used parts, which leads to extended outages.  

Isle of Wight County officials are looking to upgrade to an 800 MHz system, the level being used by other localities in Hampton Roads except Surry County.

Isle of Wight County first responders currently use VHF, which was narrow-banded several years ago by the FCC.

Beyond the initial $11 million to install the system, a recent report estimated it would cost about $450,000 – $650,000 a year in operational costs. The cost estimate includes new towers, as the existing towers are not adequate. 

If the county invests in new towers, it can lease space and could also make them part of a countywide broadband initiative, as well as bring in additional revenue.  

Other options include forming a partnership with a neighboring locality to cut down on costs.

The Isle of Wight County Board of Supervisors plans to hold a work session on the proposed fiscal 2017 budget before and after a public hearing to give the Board time to react to comments from residents. A work session will be held April 14 and 27 and a public hearing will be held April 21 during the regular Board meeting. The Board plans to adopt the budget at a special meeting May 10 at 7 p.m.  {/mprestriction}

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