Radios cause problems for county departments

Published 10:00 am Thursday, January 4, 2024

The problem shows up when fire departments from Prince Edward answer a call for mutual aid across the border here. Sometimes the radios don’t work. 

“Fire and Rescue is operating off a single repeater,” said Prince Edward County Administrator Doug Stanley. “This one is more than 30 years old. It’s a spare loaner repeater that I acquired from Lunenburg County. They don’t make it anymore.” 

And as a result of just using the one repeater, there are some places where the signal drops and they can’t call. That’s especially problematic when you’re trying to coordinate a response to a fire. 

“They key up, it’s not heard,” Stanley said. “They key up, it’s garbled. They key up, they hear static.” 

Prince Edward County Sheriff Tony Epps hears the problem every night. It’s not something that can be fixed with extra manpower or volunteers. And in some cases, it can cause issues when one of his men is responding to a call. 

“I listen to my guys every night until I go to sleep and every night I hear them trying to talk and the dispatcher can’t hear them on the radio,” Epps said. “The dispatcher says you’re gonna have to give me a 21, which means give me a telephone call. Sometimes, you can’t do that if you’re in a bind. If you’re wrestling with somebody by yourself and you try to get somebody there to help and you’ve got to make a phone call? You can’t do that every time.”

That’s the problem. Prince Edward’s radio system is not just old and outdated, but at times struggling to operate correctly. It’s not just one system. The sheriff’s office has one system, Farmville police have another. Fire and Rescue operate on yet another system and all of these have problems working together. Fire departments can’t talk directly to the sheriff’s office or Farmville police. Farmville police can’t even talk directly car to car. All the agencies can monitor the sheriff’s channel but can’t respond to a request. Currently, an agency has to call in to the Farmville Emergency Communications Center, as Epps said. Then in turn, those dispatchers have to call the different agencies and pass on the message. That takes up time and, as Epps pointed out, it’s not feasible when dealing with a situation. Plus, even when the system can be used, it struggles. 

“Right now there is one channel for fire and rescue and all it takes is one incident to happen and it’s overwhelmed completely,” said Trey Pyle, Prince Edward’s Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator. “The current system for the sheriff’s office is one repeater, on the water tower at Hampden-Sydney College.” 

He mentioned that the sheriff’s office had a problem over the last month where their system just stopped working. And at the present time, there is no backup. The systems for other agencies are also old and outdated. 

SO WHAT’S THE SOLUTION? 

Now that we’ve identified the problem, what’s the solution? Prince Edward staff want to buy one new system and bring every agency on it. That means the Farmville Police Department, the Prince Edward Sheriff’s Office, the Longwood Police Department, the Hampden-Sydney Police Department and all fire and rescue operations in the area. Prince Edward’s Public Works and Solid Waste departments would also be included, with space available to include the school system in the future. 

To do this, county staff reviewed a number of different companies and identified the Motorola Countywide P25 UHF Phase 2 Trunked Radio System as the best option. 

“We’re gonna double capacity and put everyone on one system,” Pyle said. 

There would be three tower sites set up under this project. The main tower would be a Dominion Energy tower on East Third Street and Milnwood Road. The second would be on Prince Edward Highway, just past the convenience site in Prospect. And the third would be at the intersection of Douglas Church Road at Abilene Road. 

The system has endorsements from both the sheriff’s office and local fire departments, who said it was needed. 

“It’s important that we as responders are heard when we call for help,” said James Redford. He serves as assistant chief for the Prospect Fire Department. “We believe that with the system they have put together and the coverage map, our calls will be heard.” 

BREAKING DOWN THE COST 

This total package will cost $7.22 million, split between Prince Edward, the town of Farmville, Longwood University and Hampden-Sydney College. Prince Edward’s portion would be 77% of the cost, as it has the most agencies involved. That would add up to $5.57 million. Farmville’s portion would be 20% or $1.41 million, with Longwood paying $167,664 and Hampden-Sydney paying $64,486. Now the county did get a $1 million grant to help cover the cost, so that reduces the bill for everyone involved. 

With that grant, the county’s portion will be $4.8 million, with Farmville paying $1.21 million. Longwood would pay $144,450 and Hampden-Sydney would cover $55,557. 

“It is a big number, but that number isn’t going to get cheaper next year,” Stanley said. “That number is only going to go up.” 

He pointed to the April 2007 shooting at Virginia Tech as a situation where not having the same radio systems made things worse. 

“You had all these first responders arriving on campus and they couldn’t talk to each other,” Stanley pointed out. “The key component here is that every agency could be able to talk to each other with their radio system.” 

Before taking a vote on the project, supervisors in their Tuesday, Dec. 12 meeting agreed that it’s worth the money. However, they also cautioned residents that some other projects may have to be tabled as a result, while they pay for this. 

“It’s expensive, it’s costly but it’s worth it,” said Supervisor Jerry Townsend. “It’s people’s lives at stake. Now keep in mind a lot of things are gonna have to be tabled, because this is expensive. You’re talking about $5 million here. But we’ll figure it out.” 

Under the current rates, Prince Edward would pay about $600,000 a year to pay this off, with Farmville paying about $122,000 a year. 

WORK STILL TO BE DONE 

Now during their Dec. 12 meeting, Prince Edward supervisors unanimously voted to move forward with this project, but that doesn’t mean it’s a done deal. They still have to get the town of Farmville and other agencies on board. 

“We have to work with Farmville, along with (Longwood) and Hampden-Sydney College to get their complete buy-in,” Pyle said. “We have been in contact with them. We haven’t had any opposition yet, but we have to work through that process.”