The Greene County Board of Supervisors is facing another multi-million-dollar problem with its aging and ineffectual public safety communications systems, according to a recent analysis by Black & Veatch Corp.
The board heard a presentation about the communication system at its March 27 meeting.
“We have some issues, that’s no secret, and we’re going to have to have some type of major overhaul in the next couple of years for our public safety communications,” said Melissa Meador, Greene County emergency services manager.
Fire and rescue departments and Sheriff’s Office all have poor radio coverage by mobile and portable radios, including coverage in Dyke and inside large department stores such as Walmart and Lowe’s, according to Don Bowman of Black & Veatch.
Additionally, fire and rescue infrastructure equipment is old and discontinued by the manufacturer, according to the report. There also is a lack of interoperability with neighboring agencies and channel congestion during larger incidents.
Bowman said his agency did detailed analysis for three alternatives for public safety communications for the county. The first is a standalone option for the county, with an estimated cost of $6.2 million.
The second is a joint system with Madison County, with an estimated cost of $5.6 million for Greene County.
The third alternative is a regional system with Greene, Madison, Louisa and Fluvanna counties, with an estimated price tag of $5.3 million for Greene.
“The goal is to have 95 percent of the county covered 95 percent of the time,” Bowman said.
Bowman said there is about a 25 percent chance of a public safety official inside a building getting a call out.
“You’re telling me that there are four firefighters who go into a burning building that only one of them will be able to transmit and the other may not?” At-large supervisor Dale Herring asked.
“That’s the mathematical method to do it, but that’s not the reality,” Bowman said. “Because if they’re close enough to the tower they will be able to.”
Meador added, “However, if you remember when Chief [Dustin] Clay came in, he was on the house fire on Route 230 and called a mayday multiple times and it never got out.”
There is one radio tower on the Greene County Courthouse, which is less than a mile from the site on Madison Road.
Bowman said he learned that dispatchers have had to tell officers or fire and rescue personnel to go back to a mobile device because they can’t understand what’s being said.
“[Personnel] have had to leave the area, and some cases that’s not a very good idea, if they’re on a domestic [abuse call] or something and go back to their car and utilize a cell phone or use a landline in the home,” Bowman said.
The three towers at the courthouse, in Ruckersville and on Flat Top Mountain do not link up. It’s one tower used at a time, Bowman said.
When help is requested from other localities, the only time they’re able to talk to Greene is when they’re within the coverage of Greene’s system, and vice versa.
Bowman said the best alternative for Greene is probably a joint system with Madison County, expanding to three tower sites in Greene and three in Madison, all simulcast.
“We’re not a vendor and we sell nothing. We’re your consultant, we represent you,” Bowman said. “Yes, one of the considerations for leaning toward Alternative 2 is a reduction in cost, which I’m hoping is going to be significantly less than what I’m showing you.”
Bowman noted the cost estimates are in 2015 pricing.
“Is there better coverage opportunity to go regionally or is the coverage issue separate from the benefit of having regional interoperability for our law enforcement and fire and rescue personnel?” County Administrator John Barkley asked.
Bowman told the board it’s all tied together.
“With six towers, your coverage is significantly better when you’re using six towers instead of three,” Black and Veatch engineer David Gelyana said. “Both counties go up. Both counties would benefit from that.”
“Candidly, I’m frustrated having read the full report that we are, in my opinion, again in a situation where we are way behind and we are looking at a large investment to catch up again on a large item that is of critical importance to our county and to our citizens,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Michelle Flynn. “It makes me incredibly uncomfortable that not only do we have individuals who voluntarily or for pay risk their lives for our county, but they’re doing it in conditions that are at times dangerous.
“I can’t imagine why any locality would enter into a standalone system at this point in time,” she said. “All of our disaster responses, all our mitigation exercises are regional.”
Supervisor David Cox of the Monroe District asked how long the new technology would be good for; Bowman said it would be good until 2040.
“This is what I was concerned about,” Cox said. “We’re looking at an astronomical mount of investment here, whichever alternative we go with, but I didn’t want to be looking at it in 10 years and saying ‘hey, we gotta upgrade, we have to revamp and do all this again.’ I’m a big supporter of fire and rescue and law enforcement want to make sure we do it right the first time.”
Barkley said Madison County is interested in having a conversation about a joint system.
Flynn suggested board members take the full report, digest it and have it added as an agenda information item.