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Firemen, county at odds over working radio equipment

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The Ellis County Press

OVILLA - Some Ellis County fire departments are using radio equipment often considered unreliable.

Problems with pagers, communications equipment and the like have caused numerous delays in emergency dispatches, some as bad as half an hour.

Smaller fire departments like Maypearl’s still consist of volunteers who use equipment tuned to a repeater that communicates with transmitters throughout the county.

These stations utilize a single radio network in which they communicate.

Larger fire departments, like the Red Oak and Lancaster fire departments, however, utilize their own frequency channels.

"There are two radio stations used by the fire departments, one for dispatching and another for communicating with the whole county, called a repeater, which has extra receivers around the county to feed them to a transmitter and talk to any other radio within the county," said Lyn Kennedy, an amateur radio enthusiast from Ovilla.

"That device has had a lot of problems with not hearing all the signals in the county. This is an engineering problem that needs to be handled by an engineer and fixed today."

Various small radio systems around the county support smaller fire departments (Ellis County has nine Emergency Service Districts that have the power to collect property taxes and then distribute funds to rural or volunteer fire departments.)

One of the main problems is paging and dispatching the fire fighters. The sheriff is designated to maintain the radio infrastructure for the stations, and is in charge of things like the base station radio. The sheriff also dispatches those departments.

"Our biggest problem is probably mainly area coverage, especially in the lower-line areas near the Trinity River, near Milford, [etcetera] due to elevation differences," John Knight, sheriff’s office radio supervisor, said. "This issue is an ongoing, evolutionary thing, as with all other forms of technology."

Theoretically, the issue has been worked on for years. A decision was reached a while ago to hire a consultant for the sheriff’s office to discuss the problem.

"Part of a proposal the consultant will decide is whether to install new radio towers in an attempt to cover 90 to 95 percent of the area," said Knight, who also serves as the mayor of Milford in southern Ellis County. "Once we get the proposals into the vendor’s court, the county commissioners will make a decision on a course of action."

For the past few years some changes were made to the county’s equipment. The dispatch transmitter moved from Midlothian to Boyce and satellite receivers were placed in Ellis County, all within the last five years.

Faulty radios, however, are not just a local issue.

While they have impacted departments like Maypearl and Avalon, other incidences throughout the nation have highlighted the problem as well, despite the federal government creating the largest agency – the Department of Homeland Security – and funding it with $22 billion for its first outlay after 9/11.

"This isn’t just a local problem; nine firefighters died in Charleston, South Carolina, because they couldn’t find their way out of a burning building while looking for someone who had already been rescued." Kennedy said. "There’s a little bit of a problem with education today; people just don’t understand what’s wrong with the equipment used in the fire departments. It’s a problem all over the country, not just here."

Whether the problem rests in coverage or engineering integrity (or both), the communications systems impact more than just the smaller fire departments.

"Right now we don’t have the coverage we need, but that may not be the only problem," Knight said. "All our equipment is mimicked throughout the county. The radio system not only impacts firefighters, but law enforcement we dispatch, highway patrol, [etcetera]. All parts must work equally well." 

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