County on path to fix ‘weak signal’

Published 6:14 pm Monday, November 23, 2015

 The county, with help from its fire chiefs, is on a path to fix a communications system that has been plagued with problems for several years.

Director of Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office Communications Center Vic Williams refers to the ongoing issue as a “weak signal problem,” in which pagers won’t work in some locations and handheld radios don’t pick up signals in others.

Over the past several months, at the initiative of the fire chiefs of Beaufort County, a committee has met to discuss how to solve the problem.

With the help of Raleigh-based consultant Don Cahoon, of Lookout Communications, the existing system is being tested and analyzed to show where gaps in service need to be addressed. Recently, Williams and Cahoon spent three days traveling from one side of the county to the other to root out problem areas. The report will be delivered at the next committee meeting, Williams said.

“It’ll basically show the good, the bad and the ugly,” Williams said.

Williams identified some of problem areas: Pantego/Pungo; north of Old Ford; Cherry Run Road from Leggetts Crossroads to the Beaufort County line; Chocowinity from Possum Track Road east to the outer edges of the county.

In those areas and others, volunteer firefighters and EMTs might miss a call to respond to an emergency on their pagers. But more concerning is a weak signal interfering with communications at the scene of a fire, Williams said.

“That’s a big deal when you’re fighting fire and somebody needs to make a Mayday call. That’s a really big deal,” Williams said. “We can’t take chances with our fire and EMS people.”

Williams recalled one incident in which it took three attempts to call an additional ambulance to a fire scene, solely due to a weak signal. Because of such situations, first responders are being asked to make such calls on a radio attached to a mobile unit, as opposed to from handheld radios, he said.

County communications haven’t always been in such a state: in 1995, a top-of-the-line system was installed, one that served as an example for other counties to follow, Williams said. Over time, however, a tower was replaced here; a new antenna, there; and what was once a strong signal weakened.

County Manager Brian Alligood, in November’s regular meeting of the Beaufort County Board of Commissioners, reported Cahoon’s initial recommendations, the primary of which was to move all pieces of the communications system under one entity: the communications director — fragmented management was the source of part of the problem. Currently, the 911-call center is operated by the sheriff’s office, while the communications towers are under the supervision of Beaufort County Emergency Management. Each has contracts with multiple vendors who work on different parts of the system — radio, telephone, towers, hardware — which has led to finger pointing when something goes wrong, Williams said.

“If you roll it all up under one person who’s responsible for it, then there’s no finger pointing,” Williams said. “Then it’s just, ‘Fix it.’”

While the first step is consolidation of the system and its vendors — which commissioners approved moving forward — the next is the committee deciding on short- and long-term goals and assessing which pieces of the system need to be fixed or replaced altogether.

“Basically what we’ll do, with the consultant, we’ll come to a consensus as to what needs to be done and, at that point, we’ll write an RFP (Request for Proposal) based on the recommendation of the committee,” Williams said.