Fire departments seek deadline extension for radio merger
by Rachael Griffin
rgriffin@annistonstar.com
Feb 13, 2013 | 4548 views |  0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Randall Landers with the Alabama Regional Communications System stands next to a radio tower serving Calhoun and Talladega counties. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
Randall Landers with the Alabama Regional Communications System stands next to a radio tower serving Calhoun and Talladega counties. (Anniston Star photo by Bill Wilson)
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OXFORD — Officials from local volunteer fire departments are hoping the Calhoun County 911 system will continue to dispatch calls for them while they wait to test a merger of radio platforms that could make such dispatching easier.

The Alabama Regional Communication System board voted Tuesday to have a committee examine a proposed merger of its system with the UHF system managed by the Alabama Forestry Commission and used by 12 area volunteer fire departments.

The board wants to consider such a merger carefully before even allowing a test, members said.

A series of connections known as bridges could allow the board’s 800 MHz digital radio system and the UHF system to work together, allowing volunteer fire departments to continue using UHF radios and eliminating the need for 911 operators to use two sets of equipment. But Alan Watson, chairman of the radio board and Talladega’s police chief, said he needs to learn more about the bridges before making any decisions. A motion to allow the Forestry Commission to test a bridge at one radio tower was rejected by board members.

“I’m concerned with several things and I don’t know if I’m even willing to do the test until we know more. We’re particular about the equipment and what patches in to our equipment,” Watson said before the board voted.

Watson said testing a bridge at one site does not necessarily mean the merger will be successful.

“If it works, it doesn’t mean it will work when we connect them all together. We need a bigger test than that,” Watson said.

A representative at the board’s meeting from the Alabama Forestry Commission, Brent Cord, said he was at a disadvantage talking about the system because he doesn’t know how 911 dispatches calls.

Cord, a communications technician, said he estimates it will cost the volunteer fire departments $5,000 to install the bridges at five sites, plus a fee of $22.50 at each site. If the bridge works, the fire departments will collectively pay $1,350 annually for the system, instead of up to $8,100 per department to replace their UHF radios with the 800 MHz radios used by many other public safety agencies.

Cord said he’s had success installing four bridges in Montgomery County and the system “worked great” and had “no issues.”

Tony Steele, vice president of the volunteer fire association and a Webster’s Chapel firefighter, said he’s hopeful the 911 board will extend a Monday deadline while the radio board’s Technical Advisory Committee investigates the bridge.

“They’re fair people and I think they’ll work with us,” Steele said.

Steele said if the bridge is unsuccessful or if the deadline cannot be extended, then the volunteer fire departments will honor the 911 board’s decision. Whether that means switching to the 800 MHz radio platform or finding another dispatcher remains to be seen.

Jerry Jackson, 911 director, said he doesn’t think the radio board’s decision will affect the 911 board’s plan to use only one radio platform. Jackson said the 911 board attempted a similar operation in December to patch both radio platforms together and was unsuccessful. The director is worried about problems the bridge could cause, mainly having multiple “talk groups” for dispatchers to contend with, which is equivalent to the problems dispatchers face now.

Jackson said he can’t speak for the 911 board on whether it will grant an extension of the deadline, but believes an agreement will be reached. The Forestry Commission looked at the 911 dispatching system Tuesday afternoon, Jackson said, and is creating a proposal to address operational concerns next week.

“We’re not going to cut these people off. We’re not going to jeopardize citizens’ lives, but we’ve got to resolve this,” Jackson said.

Staff Writer Rachael Griffin: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @RGriffin_Star.
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