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First-responders warn Calhoun County radio system becoming obsolete; upgrade could cost $6 million

OXFORD — It’s been decades since Calhoun County’s police, fire and emergency medical personnel have used more than one radio to communicate. Now local leaders have to find the money to keep it that way. 

“The pinnacle of cooperation is communication between police, fire and EMS, and we in Calhoun County have enjoyed it for most of the careers in this room,” said Kevin Jenkins, director of the county 911 service, during a meeting of leaders from first-response agencies, cities and county government held Wednesday at the city Civic Center.

“Most people don’t remember what it was like … when the sheriff’s department was on VHF, Weaver was on another VHF, Anniston was on another VHF … and then you’ve got four radios in a car, one for whatever band everybody else is on.” 

But now the system is becoming obsolete, and Motorola, which provides the service, will no longer support Calhoun County’s current radio technology.

Even after negotiations with the company, Jenkins explained, it will cost about $6.2 million to upgrade the system and keep the radios working, assuming no further discounts are applied. 

Jenkins spoke to remind those gathered — including fire and police leaders from Anniston, Oxford, Jacksonville, Weaver and Jacksonville State University, as well as County Commission representatives and the county 911 board — about the importance of the countywide P25 radio system, which allows those agencies and several other local organizations to communicate at the flip of a switch. The simplicity and compatibility has saved lives, he explained. 

“When somebody is shooting at you, you can’t have four portables,” Jenkins said. 

Cost varies with usage

The Wednesday meeting, hosted by the county 911 board, was a chance for the heads of agencies and local government to see a breakdown of how they use the service and equipment. It was also a chance for the 911 board to feel out responses. Without everyone on board to chip in for upgrades, the system will likely have to simply be abandoned as equipment fails. 

“As we are right now, equipment cannot be replaced,” said Brad Campbell, assistant 911 manager. When a critical piece of equipment fails, he said, it’s no longer a matter of calling for a replacement. “That’s when we start shutting off channels.” 

The amount that the County Commission and each municipality would pay varies based on usage. According to Gary Sparks, chairman of the 911 board and Oxford’s fire chief, Calhoun County government and Oxford together account for about 54 percent of total radio usage. 

Calhoun County, which includes the sheriff’s office, highway department and emergency management agency, uses 475 of the 1,918 devices tied to the radio network (most are handheld radios). Oxford accounts for 406 of the devices.  

Other agencies have far fewer units. Anniston city services use 196 units, Jacksonville 132, JSU 38 and Weaver 55.

Any entity with fewer than 25 users, Jenkins said, will simply be carried by the majority users. Those agencies include Piedmont first responders, volunteer fire departments, Regional Medical Center and a handful of others. 

Jenkins prepared several variations on the split between the cities and county. One included for-profit companies on the service as contributors. Another doesn’t, but does include the county and Oxford boards of education, both of which use the radio system for their school buses. 

The two most likely options, one which includes for-profit companies and another that excludes them, along with the boards of education, would break down payments as follows: 

— County Commission, about $2.28 million

— Oxford, about $1.95 million

— Anniston, $944,676

— Jacksonville, $636,210

— Weaver, $265,087

— JSU, $183,151

Asked about cities and the county setting up their own systems, Sparks said Oxford police Chief Bill Partridge had looked into the cost of setting up an independent radio network for the city a few years ago, and reported that it would cost about $6 or $7 million, while losing the interoperability between agencies. That system would also need upgrades, Sparks said. 

Meanwhile, setting up additional antennas would be prohibitively expensive, Jenkins said, even if using current communications towers in spots like Blue Mountain. 

“You would have to beef up the towers to support additional antennas, if you’re going to have to build systems for every city and agency,” he explained. 

Eventually, a better solution

Noble Bank, Farmers and Merchants and Southern States representatives all attended the meeting, and said that the county 911 service would be the signatory of a single loan. Those participating would make payments to the 911 board, which would in turn repay the banks.

By the end of the meeting, those assembled agreed to take the numbers to their leadership, be it a city council, county commission or university president, and report back at another meeting on July 29 at the Civic Center. 

But several attendees said the current measure will only be a stopgap, and eventually more upgrades will be required.

Weaver Mayor Wayne Willis was quick to voice his support for keeping the radio system. “We’re going to have to be in, we know that. The question is just how we fund it when it comes time,” he said. But Willis also pointed out the likelihood that other agencies will face the same issues as Calhoun County, and more than once.  

“It’s obviously not a problem that’s going to be unique to us,” said Willis, who is also a former law enforcement officer.

By his reasoning, Willis said, a more permanent solution will need to be decided at the state level, which would ensure payments for the system are covered even decades from now. 

Sparks agreed, but said that previous proposals to legislators based around property taxes had been shot down. He said he hoped for a more permanent solution in 2023.

In the short term, though, he said keeping the radio system alive is a necessity. 

“We’ve got to be able to come together, bite the bullet and fix the problem today,” Sparks said, “before we have an incident where our system goes down while we’ve got law enforcement officers dealing with an active shooter situation, or we’re in the middle of a tornado response.”

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560.