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Fire chiefs seek funding for system upgrade / March 01, 2017

The Mecklenburg County Board of Supervisors expressed support for a request from the Mecklenburg County Fire Chiefs Association to fund a new communications system for local EMS and fire departments.

The cost of the system is about $500,000.

The request was made during the annual meeting of the Mecklenburg County Fire Chiefs Association and the Board of Supervisors, which took place late last month in South Hill.

South Hill Fire Chief Rosser Wells said 48 years ago, men from Apollo 11 spoke to men in Texas from the moon. “Today there are times when I cannot hear a communication from the 911 Call Center when I am standing in my driveway. There are at least six miles along I-85 where the firefighters from South Hill and neighboring companies cannot communicate.”

Jon Taylor, Mecklenburg County Emergency Services Director and John Zubrod, Vice Chairman of the E-911 Advisory Board described a communication void that first responders must deal with on a regular basis.

Mecklenburg County fire and EMS squads currently use a VHF radio system that Zubrod and Taylor said was both outdated and overtaxed. Even worse, most of the outer edges of the county are radio “dead zones.” First responders dispatched to those locations can neither send nor receive signals.

Communications are often hindered by wind or static, even in locations where the first responders should be able to receive or send messages.

The present system utilizes two-way radio towers located about six miles apart in the central part of Mecklenburg — in Skipwith and Baskerville. As more people access the VHF frequency using wireless microphone systems, the range of the radio signals is drastically reduced.

On the western end of the county, where Clarksville Fire Chief Andy Elliott said his men are called to fight fires, the only way that he or others can communicate with the 911 center is by cell phone.

The new UHF system that first responders hope to install would be tied to five radio towers — two existing and three new towers. When installation is completed, “we will have true interoperability for the first time,” explained Taylor.

Interoperability is the ability of the various departments to communicate with each other directly, without special effort by either the sending or receiving party.

Other advantages of the new system: less congestion, less static, better reach and coverage, backup capabilities, and warnings that are triggered by system or equipment failures.

Taylor emphasized that the system he and the other first responders are seeking is not the same P-25 system currently used by Virginia State Police, although it is every bit as effective.

“It would cost us over $7 million to outfit everyone with that system. We can’t afford it,” he said.

Supervisors have already set aside $200,000 for the new system. The fire chiefs said they needed an additional $300,000 to cover the full cost. The system could be up and running in just four months after financing is arranged.

The fire chiefs’ request will be considered as part of the overall budget process which the Board of Supervisors expects to take up in March.

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