911 director pleads for new field radios for first responders

by Kate Shunney

What’s the life of a first responder worth?

That was the question posed by 911 director Ronald Mason last week to two of the county’s three elected commissioners.

Behind Mason, more than a dozen local volunteer and paid first responders filled the seats in the County Commission meeting room.

“We need to replace field subscriber radios,” said Mason. He described the radios as the “one life line” a responder should be able to rely on when he or she is alone on a remote law enforcement call, or inside a burning building.

911 director Ronald Mason.

“We may not hear their cries for help,” Mason said of the current radios being used in the field.

Sporadic trouble connecting to the 911 center has left some officers, firefighters and EMS responders without the assistance they need.

“Many of our field radios are reaching the end of their life,” he said. “I’ve already had a deputy and firefighter approach me because their radio wouldn’t work with the SIRN tower. Many times first responder asked for something and we didn’t hear them.”

Mason said planned upgrades to the county’s 911 center are good, but won’t solve the radio problem.

“Equipment at the 911 center is only one half of an important equation. We have to fix both halves of the equation,” he said.

“There’s no price tag you can put on the lives of our first responder or our citizens,” said Commission President Joel Tuttle. “It’s hard to put a price tag on the work our volunteers do, much less their lives.”

Statewide system shift

Because responders in West Virginia rely on radio connections through the state’s interoperability system (SIRN), changes in that system or the towers they use will affect how local radios work.

Mason said Motorola radios work best with the SIRN system, because that system is a Motorola system. Morgan County has Kenwood radios for each field user. When radio users move around, their radios must “roam” from tower to tower to maintain contact. Sometimes that contact isn’t seamless.

A planned upgrade in November to the SIRN system and tower bandwidth operations are likely to cause more problems.

Without new radios, the county will face reprogramming all of its field radios to work with the local emergency towers, Mason said.

Deputy 911 director Sarah Hogbin said the county has spent more than $300,000 over the last four years for repairs, installation and programming for field radios.

The county spent close to $530,000 on more than 200 new radios in 2015 as part of a major emergency communications upgrade, largely funded by state and federal grants.

All county personnel, volunteers and EMS employees got the radios.

Mason said when the state emergency towers have their upgrade, every one of the local radios will have to be reprogrammed in order to work seamlessly.

Commission President Joel Tuttle asked Mason if there is a problem now.

“They won’t work in November when it changes, or they don’t work now?” Tuttle asked.

Mason said there are already problems with radios not reaching the 911 center.

“I’ve never had the failure rate I’ve had in this county,” said Sheriff K.C. Bohrer.

“It’s unheard of. This is completely subpar, compared to other jurisdictions,” said Kevin Duckwall, executive director of Morgan County EMS.

Tuttle said county officials have several proposals before them to buy new Motorola radios.

One proposal sets the cost of 137 radios at $512,000. If the county were to provide new radios to all first responders in the county, including all volunteers, it would cost the county $1.36 million.

Lease options are less costly, but still significant. It could cost the county $85,000 each year to lease the radios, said Tuttle.

“We need to get together and work on these replacement plans,” said Commissioner Sean Forney. “To do this every five years – it’s sticker shock.”

A Motorola representative at the meeting said the new radios come with a three-year warranty and the company has a pool the county can put money into to pay for radio repairs.

“It doesn’t make me feel good that you have a three-year warranty and a pool for repairs,” Tuttle said.

Hogbin said the county has spent “a lot” on reprogramming radios every time there is an update. Motorola pushes upgrades out to the radios so they don’t have to be reprogrammed.

Commissioner Forney asked if the county could recoup any money from the Kenwood radios that still function.

OES Director Dick Myers said they could, but nowhere near the cost of new radios.

Tuttle said officials needed to hold a workshop to look clearly at the options, and which entities would get radios from the county. He said Morgan County EMS, for example, is a private company under contract to the county – not the same as volunteer fire companies or the county’s Sheriff’s Department.

The Morgan County Commission will meet in a special session this Friday, September 13 at 9 a.m. to discuss county emergency radio equipment. The meeting is open to the public.