Alarm sounded on outdated system

Published 10:52 am Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Charlotte County Volunteer Fire and EMS Chiefs responsible for fire and emergency response to the seven districts their departments cover as well as the safe and efficient operation of the respective teams they lead came together and laid it all on the line during a recent meeting at Phenix Volunteer Fire and EMS.
The Fire Chief’s major grievance and sole concern was having to deal with an old, outdated and patched up communications system long overdue to be replaced. Frustrated with years of delays in upgrading to a new system, the Volunteer firemen came to grips with the fact that the growing suspicion they have felt for some time has now materialized as a dangerous reality.

They could not perform properly with the communication equipment currently in place.
Phenix Fire Chief and Chief President Walt Bailey told The Charlotte Gazette during the meeting, “This is a tough thing to have to say, but it needs to be done. It is important at this point that the residents of Charlotte County understand that we may not even get your dispatch in the event of a fire or medical emergency; and it really is not our fault. You may not be safe in your own home,” Bailey said simply and pointedly. “That is the situation we are in right now.”

It was a sobering admission for the men that have volunteered years of their life to serve as a fireman for their county but felt it even more so for the residents of Charlotte County and beyond, that they have volunteered to protect.

“This has become a difficult situation for us,” Bailey added. “We are a volunteer organization that relies on public donation and fundraising events to operate. It is hard to expect the county’s residents to support us when, for example, an outside volunteer unit reaches an emergency call in our district before we do simply because the communication system we depend on has failed us.”

Each department Chief has at one time or another reached into their own limited coffers, even their own pockets, to try to improve the reliability of the old system. All of them said that it was difficult to reach other volunteer firemen when a call does come in.

Replacement of the obsolete emergency communications system, one deemed ineffective to the point of being a threat to public safety by every fire and EMS chief in the county, has been a topic of discussion at the county administrative level nearly five years. Records indicate that it showed up as an item of business as far back as March 2015 at a Charlotte County Board of Supervisors meeting. In the interim since discussion began, failings of the current system have only become more frequent, according to fire chiefs.

“We have been to the Board of Supervisors several times,” Bailey said. “We have agreed to and formed committees to seek out bids on three occasions. The money for the upgrade was put in the county budget as a reoccurring item. The issue just seems to be put off, over and over for one reason or another.”

Chief Bailey explained that the problem affects not only fire and EMS, but a wide range of services that should be able to communicate freely within the county. Currently, Fire and EMS cannot reliably communicate with law enforcement. It cannot communicate with the school system. “If a bus broke down and required assistance, it could not call us for assistance,” he explained. Charlotte is challenged to communicate, thus coordinate, with neighboring counties. Each Chief spoke of delayed, or even missed dispatches, or times when they had to set up a “daisy chain” of communication due to the unreliability of the old VHF frequency system.

The system upgrade that Charlotte County has discussed installing operates on a UHF frequency. According to information conveyed at the March 2015 Board meeting, the frequency and system components provides for consistently reliable communication between all services in the county as well as with other county services as well

The Chief went on to say that there are currently two bids submitted for review.

“We have strongly considered a lease agreement for the equipment upgrade,” he pointed out. “At the rate technology is changing today it could be a viable option.”

According to Charlotte County public records, the equipment upgrade is listed as RFP, (Request for Proposal).

“We need this upgrade to do our job,” Chief Bailey said, “There isn’t a single man here that takes their obligation lightly, we volunteered to do a job for our community. It has become near impossible to do properly.”

The Charlotte Gazette did reach out to Charlotte County Administration concerning the communications system upgrade. The county responded that the matter was currently still under review but expects the Board to come to a decision in the very near future.

Additionally, immediately before going to press The Charlotte Gazette received an official Notice of Meeting from the Charlotte County Board of Supervisors issued from the office of County Administrator Daniel Witt. The notice calls for a meeting of the Board of Supervisors on Feb. 13 at 6 p.m. “to enter into closed session to discuss the procurement process involving radios.”