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Asheville Citizen-Times

'About the sorriest in the country': Madison earmarks $1M to fix public safety radio system

By Johnny Casey, Asheville Citizen Times,


MARSHALL - A host of local first responders appeared before the Madison County commissioners Sept. 19 to plead with them in support of the county's proposed enhancements to its current emergency radio system.

Laurel Volunteer Fire Department Chief Emerson Franklin, who has served as chief for more than 20 years, did not hold back in his criticism of the county's current radio system.

"It's about the sorriest there is in the country, I guess," Franklin said. "We have trouble everywhere we go talking on the radios. We've had two instances here in the last two weeks. We had a wreck up next to Spillcorn. It was on a bad curve. (Emergency Management Director) Louis (Roberts) was on the scene first. He had to walk way back up the road to get on a mobile to talk to the EOC and tell them we didn't need an ambulance.

"But other than that, 90% of the time we can't even talk to the ambulances to tell them what we've got going on. It's just disgusting to our firefighters. They're on to me all the time, wondering what's wrong with the radios. In the '90s, we had the same trouble. My fire department went on Rich Mountain and built a building to put the system up there then. That helped us for about 10 years, but it wore out. Now we're back in the same shape that we were back then."

From 2020:Push to improve emergency communications in Madison County brings results

Franklin and LVFD Assistant Chief Dillon Cantrell said the issue was one of life or death.

"We cannot leave a patient to walk a quarter-mile down the road, to drive down the road to talk," Franklin said. "When you get back, he may not be alive. We're putting people in danger. We're putting our firefighters in danger. We've got more than 300 volunteer firefighters in this county. They're in the same boat we are. 90% or more of them aren't getting paid for this."

"You don't understand the scary feeling it is, when you cannot get a hold of a fire department, a deputy, or EMS agency, on a pretty scary call when the 911 call comes in," Cantrell said. "We deal with stuff on a daily basis that gets scary. You don't understand how scary it is when you can't get a hold of an agency because our radios have fallen so far behind. What's going to end up happening is our guys is going to get hurt, or worse, because they could not get on a radio and call for help. All I want to say is, really consider what these guys are presenting to you, and really take into consideration what's on the line when it comes to this radio improvement project."

In November 2021, officials with the county-contracted Mission Critical Partners, a public safety communications consulting firm, revealed the findings of the company's assessment of the county's public safety radio network.

According to Hennemann, the purpose of the project was to assess the county's current EHF (Extremely High Frequency) system compared to public safety standards.

"We did find that coverage throughout the county is fairly poor today," said Tim Hennemann, a senior technology specialist with Mission Critical. "There are a few reasons for that. The biggest reason is that the current system is located in the Very High Frequency - or VHF, for short - spectrum. VHF is a pretty old frequency band. It's got a lot of noise, which effectively reduces the coverage for the system."

In that November 2021 meeting, Mars Hill Fire Department Chief Nathan Waldrop issued Commissioner Michael Garrison a letter to read, expressing his support for a system overhaul.

"For many years our county has operated a VHF radio system for our fire, EMS and law enforcement agencies," Waldrop said. "This system has served our county well, but it has become antiquated, inadequate and is in urgent need of a major overhaul. Emergency communications in our county is of paramount importance. Our county is growing. In our department alone, our calls have gone up 40.4% over the last 10 years."

Communications Improvement Plan

Caleb Dispenza, Madison County's emergency operations director, worked with Mission Critical on the company's assessment of the county's EHF system.

Dispenza also coordinates a radio network focus group composed of local fire/first responders and law enforcement officials that meets semi-regularly.

Dispenza appeared before the board to propose the Communications Improvement Plan, with the objective "to develop and implement a comprehensive public safety radio system that's reliable, cost-effective, interoperable and lasting."

Dispenza said the first aspect of the three-part plan is the simulcast existing VHF system, while the other two parts of the plan relate to improvements at the Emergency Operations Center, as well as to improvements to local first responders' radio consoles.

Following the Mission Critical assessment, the county contracted Motorola to perform an additional assessment of its public safety radio network. Mark Durner, a manufacturer representative with Motorola, presented the company's findings to the board.

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"(The Mission Critical) assessment was more of a high-level overview," Durner said. "We came in and we actually plugged into the equipment, we took readings, and we got down into the dirt of what you guys actually have. For the most part, what we found is that at EOC, 9 of the 11 radios that are the communication to your tower sites - how you guys communicate - those radios are not even supported by Motorola anymore. You'll find that also, at your tower sites, of the 10 repeaters, Rich Mountain has the only repeater that is still supported by the manufacturer. That's a Tait repeater, and it was actually in failure.

"Of those repeaters, Motorola will not even support most of them. You can't get firmware updates. You can't get software updates. You can't fix those if they were to go down."

Dispenza stressed that the equipment would need to be completely replaced.

"We're talking about tones not going off," Dispenza said. "We're talking about people not hearing when we're sending out help to those who need it immediately. This equipment is not fixable. You can't duct tape it. You can't improve it. It needs to be replaced."

According to Durner and Dispenza, a VHF simulcast system would eliminate the county's problems of interference.

"We're going to replace the current system with something that's networked together, so the whole county can hear each other, no matter where you are in the county," Dispenza said. "If you're on the law enforcement channel, you can hear everyone else on the law enforcement channel, wherever you are in the county. Likewise on the fire and the emergency management channels. Even if you fix the quality of the transmission, if we don't simulcast it, Mars Hill could be talking and Spring Creek could be talking, covering each other up, and they don't know it. All they know is they can't hear each other. With the simulcast, you fix that problem."

According to Dispenza, the VHF simulcast network would cost roughly $1 million. Mission Critical estimated an overhaul to cost between $3 million-$5 million.

"This is really the least expensive project that will meet our needs now and continue to meet our needs in the future," Dispenza said.

In a motion offered by Interim County Manager Norris Gentry, the board unanimously approved the county allocate $1 million of its more than $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding to the simulcast VHF system.

"This is one of our most seriously neglected public health and safety things," Gentry said. "It's been going south for 20 years, and this is an opportunity here. We do have the funds. We're not talking about raising people's taxes. We're talking about using federal money that has come to us. Now, are there many things we can use the federal money for? Absolutely. But this is key to public health and safety."

Dispenza said he will detail the second part of the Communications Improvement Plan, relating to enhancements to the Emergency Operations Center consoles, in the upcoming commissioner meetings.

The Madison County Board of Commissioners will meet Oct. 11 at 7 p.m. at the Cooperative Extension Office, located at 258 Carolina Lane in Marshall.

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