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Concerns for Hancock County emergency communications

Hancock County Emergency Services Director Damian Rice appeared before the Hancock County Fiscal Court Monday morning to tell the magistrates that the county’s emergency communications equipment barely works. He said sometimes emergency workers cannot contact dispatch with necessary information when on scene.

“We had a fire out on 60 by the Career Center last night (Sunday), and they could not even talk,” Rice said. “That is here in town.”

Rice said once emergency workers leave the confines of Hawesville, emergency radio communications with responders is spotty at best. Often emergency workers must resort to using their cell phones to communicate with dispatch, but cell phone coverage in the county also proves problematic.

Rice said it costs approximately $1.2 million to install up-to-date emergency communications equipment. Emergency services secured a grant to pay for part of the equipment, but the county portion of the communications upgrade totals over $700,000.

“We are going to start the process,” Hancock County Judge/Executive Johnny “Chic” Roberts said. “Radio communications are a priority. We have to get that fixed.”

Roberts said the county needed to replace the equipment 10 years ago, but did not. Rice said dates to at least the late 1990s, if not earlier. He said they could not find an exact date when the county purchased the equipment.

“We are pretty sure the equipment was moved into the Emergency Operations Center when it was built in 1998-ish,” Rice said. “We cannot replace parts on it.”

Judge Roberts said the county continues to wait on guidance from the federal government on the proper uses of the American Rescue Plan Act funds (ARPA) doled out earlier this year. The money came with many strings attached regarding how counties can use the money, but to date the government has not enlightened counties on those particular strings.

“The final ruling from the U.S. Treasury should be in the middle of the month,” Roberts said. “If we cannot use the ARPA funds, we are going to start the process using county funds.”

In this year’s fiscal court budget, the county created a budget line item for the communications equipment.

The problem with the emergency communications equipment affects all of the emergency service agencies in the county: police, fire, ambulance, rescue squad and even the schools. When Emergency Service personnel respond to an emergency call, they do not know if they will be able to communicate with dispatch when they arrive on scene.

“Outside of Hawesville, the portables do not pick-up,” Rice said. “Mobiles, which are higher powered, do not even pick up in some places.”

Magistrate LT Newton confirmed this fact during the meeting. Newton said he heard of a limb that fell across Bates Hollow Road Sunday afternoon, and went to check out the situation. Newton is the fire chief of the South Hancock Volunteer Fire department, so he tried to use his county radio to talk to dispatch.

“I got through to them; I traveled about 100 feet and everything was deader than a door nail,” Newton said.

“I barely made it out when you said you were going over there,” Rice said.

Newton said he switched to his mobile phone, but it took some time to find a spot where the phone worked.

Magistrate Mark Gray asked if Emergency Services needed to look for grants to fund the county portion of the project bill.

“There are not grants for the county’s portion,” Rice said. “That is what you have to spend.”

Rice said the longer the county waits, the more the cost increases for the project. He said the project is eight months behind already.

“We have to do something soon,” magistrate Kasey Emmick said.

Rice said even if the county started the project this week, it would be about a year before the new system goes online.

“It takes six to eight months just for the FCC licenses,” Rice said. “We cannot start any construction until after the FCC gives us the go ahead.”

Rice said Emergency Services plans to use its existing towers with the new system, and also add equipment on water towers in the county to help increase coverage area.

“In time we will build additional towers,” Rice said.

By Ralph Dickerson


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