Jerry Jackson, director of the 911 system, plans to change the radio platform used by 10 of the 12 departments in the county. Those 10 are still using what Jackson calls an antiquated UHF radio system. The departments in Knightens Crossroads and Alexandria, he said, are already using the new 800 MHz radio platform that 911 dispatch will switch to.
“With the exception of the volunteer fire departments in Calhoun County every other department is on the 800 radio system,” Jackson said, referring to police and other emergency services.
Jackson worries money will be an issue with the volunteer firefighters, causing them to balk at the change.
“The 800 radio board is going to supply them with the radios they need,” Jackson said. “They’re not going to have to purchase them.”
However, a user fee of $22.50 per month for every radio will have to be paid by each volunteer fire department. Currently the fire departments use the Alabama Forestry UHF system and don’t pay a fee for radio usage.
Quad Cities Chief Van Roberts said Friday he was concerned about the cost.
“It would cost us over $13,000 a year and that’s not in the budget,” Roberts said.
Roberts said his volunteer fire department gets much better service with its old 30 UHF radios than with the two 800 MHz radios the department already has.
The current mix of radio platforms is causing problems for dispatch, Jackson said. The UHF radio system contains a lot of static, making it difficult for 911 operators to understand conversations, the director said. He noted 911 operators have been on calls for more than two minutes with someone on a UHF radio before being able to understand the caller. Jackson said the 800 MHz radio platform will alleviate that issue because it provides a clear frequency.
The dispatch service for 911 hired a consultant in June to find more ways to be efficient and use taxpayers’ money in the most economical way. The consultant said running radio systems with two different levels of technology was something that needed to be addressed, Jackson said. That arrangement particularly causes problems for dispatch when multiple accidents or fires occur in different locations.
Jackson said when that happens, operators are overloaded.
“At that point in time they’ve got more than one person can physically take care of,” Jackson said.
Instead, the new system would allow for dispatch to connect fire departments on “talk groups” so firefighters can talk with each other and dispatch if needed.
“We can’t have a designated dispatcher just chasing firemen all over the radio spectrum,” Jackson said.
Jackson said the 911 board and county commissioners have agreed to change radio platforms. A meeting will be held Monday morning in Jacksonville with chiefs of the volunteer fire departments to discuss the switch.
Jackson said he would hate for the volunteer fire departments to have someone else dispatch for them. He said it would take more time for 911 to receive the call and pass it on to someone else to dispatch.
“I hope that’s not something they would consider, but really it’s their call,” Jackson said.
Jackson said he’s optimistic about the meeting and hopeful better communication can be achieved.
Billy Hutto, chief of the White Plains Volunteer Fire Department, declined to comment about the change until he knows more about it. Hutto said he was told there will be a meeting Monday, but didn’t know enough about the change to discuss it.
Attempts to reach other volunteer fire department chiefs throughout Calhoun County were unsuccessful Friday.
Staff Writer Rachael Griffin: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @RGriffin_Star.