Madison County manager: 911 system 'grossly inadequate' as board considers $5M overhaul

This article originally appeared in the Asheville Citizen Times and can be viewed here.

The county-contracted Mission Critical Partners, a public safety communications consulting firm, performed an assessment of the county's public safety radio network. 

Caleb Dispenza, Madison County's emergency operations director, worked with the company on its assessment.

Tim Hennemann, a senior technology specialist with Mission Critical Partners, appeared before the board to deliver the company's findings.

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," he said. "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." 

Hennemann said the county's public safety radio network's capacity was another issue.

"Today, the three sites operate on the same frequency, and they have different PL, or private line, tones," he said. "This is a kind of subaudible tone that the radio listens for, and it will open up when it hears it. So in that sense, users can be talking over top of each other and not realize it, just because they don't quite hear each other. So that causes a fair amount of routine congestion on that channel." 

According to Dispenza, the 911 call center often experiences interference on the county's current network. Dispenza and Hennemann played a recorded clip of local dispatchers' calls interfering with one another. 

"We deal with (interference) every single day. Someone (will be) talking on public safety radios that we're doing life-saving missions on. If you have a scanner, you probably hear this all the time," Dispenza said after playing a recording. 

"If you're on one end of the county, you can't even tell if someone on the other end of the county is even talking. So you're going to be interrupting and talking over each other without even being aware of it, and basically cutting each other off. Sometimes it's clear, but it's not always reliable. And it's certainly not public safety grade when we deal with this every single day and night." 

With Dispenza's consultation, Mission Critical designed a UHF, or Ultra High Frequency, trunked radio system as one option presented to the county. 

"A trunked radio system dynamically uses the frequencies that are assigned to it for subscribers," Hennemann said. "I always compare it to a grocery store, where if you're in one line and you see another line that is just a little bit shorter, you can skip over that line and go through there instead of waiting for five people in front of you. That's how the trunked radio system works." 

The new network would work as a simulcast radio system, where each network site operate as a single site The county operates three sites now.

The senior technology specialist said this UHF system carries the potential for bringing in non-public safety agencies as well.

"The health department, the schools, Animal Control, transportation - this conceptual system would allow it to prioritize the traffic, so they can use the system as well, but law enforcement, fire and EMS (officials) has higher priority. So their communications will always get through," he said. 

A DMR, or Digital Mobile Radio system, which would operate the State Highway Patrol's VIPER network was also listed as a potential option for the county in the needs assessment. 

"Keeping cost in mind, we did look at the state-owned sites in the county. So we proposed using two of the existing VIPER sites to help keep the costs down, because VIPER does have a pretty good track record of allowing counties to use their sites at no cost, and then we would reuse one existing site today. There are some site improvements that are accounted for in the budget."

According to Hennemann, the DMR overhaul would cost the county just under $5 million.  

Board/local first responders' input 

Interim County Manager Norris Gentry thanked Dispenza and the numerous first responders and law enforcement officers who were in attendance, including Sheriff Buddy Harwood, for their collaboration on the project. 

"It is clear the current system that we have is grossly inadequate," Gentry said. "It is a matter of public health and safety. If you can't communicate with each other adequately or efficiently, people's lives are at risk every day. So, this is another unfortunate case of generational neglect. This has been building for years. But now we have a roadmap forward. That's part of our responsibility, of government, is to find those services that provide a quality of life and an assurance to help us be able to deliver those services to the public." 

Commissioner Michael Garrison, the former fire chief in Mars Hill, raised the issue of funding the overhaul.

"I realize that all the different entities that are associated are going to have to buy into some incurred costs," Garrison said. "But there are a lot of agencies and departments that don't have the ability to shell out the better part of $5 million."

Mission Critical's North Carolina Phillip Penny addressed the grant funding opportunities that could be available to the county.

"We want to help be a part of your solution, so we really would like to continue with this project to help you any way we can," Penny said. "I've been talking to Caleb (Dispenza) for about a year now, and we will continue to support the project. If we can help you identify grant opportunities ... even the Dogwood (Health Trust) Leverage Fund had some money available at one time. Our goal would be to help you identify those opportunities where we can find grants because $5 million is a lot of money. We want to be a part of your process of trying to come up with that price." 

Still, Garrison said he supports the county's exploring upgrades to its public safety radio system.

"I think I can speak for the board - we're all in support of moving forward, and understand the necessity and the urgency," he said. "It's one of those things that we're going to have to address." 

Commissioner Craig Goforth, an associate professor and dean of Mars Hill University's criminal justice program, shared Garrison's enthusiasm. 

"This is not going to die on our watch," Goforth said. "It's ridiculous to think that somebody can't make a radio call from Laurel and get the help they need." 

Mars Hill Volunteer Fire Department Chief Nathan Waldrop gave Garrison a letter to read during the meeting.

"I'm here to speak briefly on the communication towers equipment consultation report," Waldrop said in the letter. "For many years our county has operated a VHF radio system for our fire, EMS and law enforcement agencies. 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 ten years. 

Next steps

Dispenza said he coordinates a radio network focus group composed of local fire/first responders and law enforcement officials that meets semi-regularly. He said the focus group will meet the week of Nov. 22 to discuss Mission Critical's findings and identify specific needs.