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The options for giving emergency officials radio coverage are getting more expensive.
Sunday, September 29, 2013
Amid the deep contours of the land that fortify Franklin County’s western edge, James Webb sometimes finds himself cut off.
Webb is the chief of the Callaway Volunteer Fire Department, and any emergency in the mountainous territory between the village and the Blue Ridge Parkway is his department’s responsibility. But the 911 calls go to Rocky Mount before they reach him.
By design, the emergency dispatch officials at the central office communicate with the county’s fire officials, like Webb, and sheriff’s deputies through a radio communications system that operates on VHF frequencies. The problem, for which consultants are currently seeking an efficient solution, is that the system consistently reaches only 60 percent of the county’s 712 square miles.
Earlier this month, the consulting group hired by the county reported to the board of supervisors that the least costly method of fixing the coverage won’t work in Franklin County.
Now the group is looking at an upgrade to the 700/800 megahertz spectrum used in Roanoke and Roanoke County. But that could cost up to $26 million for a county government with an annual budget of about $124 million.
In addition to the Callaway region, parts of Ferrum, Snow Creek, Naff and the Smith Mountain Lake waterfront experience spotty service.
Webb just doesn’t know, when he weaves a truck between two hollows, whether he will be able to reach the dispatch officials in Rocky Mount to apprise them of the situation he is dealing with or ask for more help.
“Some days it picks up good and some days it doesn’t,” he said.
While the mobile radio systems on the fire trucks and other emergency vehicles are usually able to find reception, the handheld radios first responders carry outside of the trucks often go quiet.
They get by, Webb said, but Franklin County’s public safety radio system could easily complicate the operations of its fire departments or sheriff’s office.
“You can’t always be at the truck,” Webb said.
Unfortunately, a solution won’t be easy to come by, either. Mike McGannon, a consultant from Georgia-based Engineering Associates, told the board of supervisors on Sept. 17 that what was thought to be the most cost-efficient option — upgrading to a better frequency within the VHF system — wouldn’t be possible.
Daryl Hatcher, the county’s director of public safety, said a glut of nearby agencies using the VHF spectrum made it impossible to move forward with that plan. Instead, McGannon’s group is now investigating whether Franklin County can join the 700/800 megahertz spectrum that currently carries the emergency communications of Roanoke and Roanoke County, among other localities.
The benefits of the 700/800 megahertz system would be numerous, Hatcher said, and include the possibility of joining forces with a neighboring county to strengthen their networks or share the costs of a dispatch center.
Even if no formal arrangement were struck, radio communication between Franklin County emergency crews passing through Roanoke County, for example, would become seamless.
“If we go into the 700 megahertz spread, we would be able to communicate with our neighbors, who we can’t talk to directly right now,” Hatcher said.
He said the spectrum is attractive because it was recently cleaned out and opened up for law enforcement.
“It’s what they call a clean band,” Hatcher said. “The way they’re rolling out the frequencies, they actually have a plan.”
The downside, though, is the price tag.
If the 700/800 megahertz spectrum is the route the county takes, it will require the replacement of the portable radio equipment that currently is geared toward the VHF system. Hatcher also said the spectrum’s signals are less expansive than VHF frequencies, meaning more radio towers would likely be needed to fully implement the upgrade.
McGannon has told the board of supervisors the process will likely cost between $15 million and $26 million, a range that included the already eliminated VHF option on its lower end.
Bob Camicia, a supervisor who represents the Gills Creek area and has expressed concerns over the expense, said the process is moving as it should, from the most cost efficient option onward.
“It’s not going to be a happy day when we see the price tag, I’m sure,” he said. “But it’s something we’ve got to do.”
McGannon said there is no set time when his group will complete the next step — identifying a frequency on the 700/800 megahertz spectrum.
In the meantime, Camicia said the board of supervisors is preparing to deal with the financial ramifications. The board has met with financial planners and discussed the county’s current debt load, which is low compared to surrounding localities. Camicia said the county’s financial health in the current economic conditions should make it easier to shoulder the capital project.
“We’re getting a bargain because we can borrow money pretty doggone cheap right now,” he said.
Despite the budget concerns, Hatcher and Webb say the county simply needs consistent two-way radio capabilities and is not asking for any extra amenities like mobile data transmission.
“Being able to communicate is not a luxury,” Hatcher said. “It’s a necessity.”
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