Volunteer fire units facing deadline on radio conversion
by Rachael Griffin
Feb 08, 2013 | 6228 views |  0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
An 800 megahertz radio used by the Anniston Fire Department. (Anniston Star photo by Trent Penny)
An 800 megahertz radio used by the Anniston Fire Department. (Anniston Star photo by Trent Penny)
JACKSONVILLE — Local volunteer fire departments have been told to find a way to change their radio systems or risk losing the dispatch service provided by Calhoun County 911.

The local departments’ fire chiefs have 10 days to meet with the Alabama Forestry Commission and bridge their UHF radios to the 911 services’ 800 MHz platform, something the chiefs hope will save their departments money in the long run.

The 911 board gave the chiefs of the 12 local volunteer fire departments the deadline after meeting with them Monday morning.

Jerry Jackson, 911 director, said earlier this month that the board and the Calhoun County Commission had already approved the switch from UHF radios to 800 MHz radios.

Jackson told the fire chiefs Monday he had a 90-day plan to change platforms and that beginning May 15 the old UHF system would no longer be supported. If the departments don’t commit to the new system by Feb. 18, they’ll miss that deadline, he said.

According to Jackson, the current mix of radio platforms is causing problems for dispatch. The UHF radio system contains a lot of static, making it difficult for 911 operators to understand conversations, the director said. He noted 911 operators have been on calls for more than two minutes with someone on a UHF radio before being able to understand the caller. Jackson said the 800 MHz radio platform will alleviate that issue because it provides a clear frequency.

Not all the chiefs are convinced switching to the digital 800 MHz system will be an upgrade.

Tracy Sanders, fire chief for Mount Olive, near Ohatchee, said during Monday’s meeting she’s concerned the 800 MHz radio platform will have the same issues as the UHF platform.

“The safety of our people comes first,” Sanders said. “If we have the same problems we had before we’re going to be stuck.”

Sanders said the fire departments can easily communicate with each other now, but have problems talking with 911 operators over the radios. The chief said she feels the fire departments are “being nudged in a direction because there is an agenda that is not mutually beneficial.”

Sanders said the chiefs are amicable to any sort of compromise that can be reached between the 911 dispatch service and the volunteer fire departments.

Cost is a factor. The departments currently get their UHF radios for free from the Alabama Forestry Commission. They could replace them with digital 800 MHz radios, but would have to pay a $22.50 user fee per radio per month to the Alabama Regional Communications System, a board established to provide the radios for local public safety agencies. Several of the fire departments have nearly 30 radios, which could mean an $8,100 annual cost. The chiefs say that money is not in their budgets.

Van Roberts Sr., fire chief for Quad Cities in eastern Calhoun County, said by phone Tuesday that a device called a bridge could allow the 800 MHz and UHF systems to work together. If the bridge is effective, volunteer fire departments can continue to use UHF radios and 911 operators will only use one radio platform, making calls more efficient. But the chiefs don’t yet know the cost of the bridge.

Roberts said the local departments will meet next week with the Alabama Forestry Commission to discuss a timeline for merging the systems as well as how much it will cost.

“I hope folks understand we’re trying not only to look out for ourselves, but also for the taxpayers,” Roberts said.

Roberts said the volunteer fire departments met Monday evening and discussed three possible outcomes. The chief said those outcomes are to cooperate with the 911 board and change to the 800 MHz radios, seek other dispatching services or seek legal counsel.

“We’re just trying to keep options open and see what is available,” Roberts said.

Jason Odom, an attorney representing the 911 board, said state law gives the board the authority to choose how it operates, dispatches and expends funds.

“There are multiple (attorney general) opinions that say the 911 board can charge money to municipalities or other entities if they reach a mutually agreeable contract,” Odom said.

Matt Lowery, 911 board chairman and firefighter with the Anniston Fire Department, said his primary concern is dispatch being unable to hear a firefighter in distress. Lowery said when a firefighter is in a burning building and becomes trapped only 911 operators can hear their cry for help.

“If they can’t hear my mayday I’m going to die,” Lowery said. “There’s brother and sister firefighters in this county that are not going to get the help if they need it.”

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

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