COLDSPRING, Texas (KTRK) — Leaders in San Jacinto County are at an impasse over what constitutes an emergency.
First responders said county-wide communications systems being down for multiple days is an emergency, but the county board of commissions voted that it isn’t.
For four years, the San Jacinto County Sheriff’s Office said it has been notifying the county of an impending problem that’s now happening.
“Frustrated is the sanitized version of how I feel right now,” Chief Deputy Tim Kean said.
The radio system used by law enforcement, EMS, and emergency management has been neglected and outdated for years. It was utterly inoperable four days earlier in January, leaving only cell phones in a rural county with imperfect cell coverage.
“We requested this commissioner court to declare an emergency so we can have access to emergency funding to repair this system, but they don’t agree with what our idea of an emergency is,” Kean said.
ABC13 asked San Jacinto County Judge Fitz Faulkner what would constitute declaring this an emergency. He said if the system went down, it would be an emergency. Eyewitness News reminded him that it did go down for four days in January, but he said because it was able to come back online, it was not an emergency.
First responders said years of Band-Aid fixes means there were holes in their communications during recent flooding emergencies, a mass shooting-turned-manhunt, and a plant explosion.
They fear that they’ll try to call for help in the next big emergency, and no one will hear them.
“Kind of a jolt of irritation. The first thing you see is no connection,” 980 North Fire Department Captain Dunaway said.
County residents want reassurance that if they need help, it arrives.
“For older women like myself who live alone, they might not have a neighbor close, they might not have a family member close, but 911 – that’s our brother, that’s our uncles, that’s our family that can help up,” Coldspring resident Judy Chatham said.
Faulkner suggested the county use funding from State Bill 22 to cover the cost and money initially intended for law enforcement raises to pay for the $500,000 project.
“If you’re at the minimum salary or above, you can use it for other things like safety equipment, vehicles, firearms, and there was one other thing. It’s our position that safety equipment includes radios,” Faulkner said.
The sheriff’s office said money meant solely for their agency shouldn’t be used to pay for a county-wide service, a sentiment backed by many in attendance.
“The numerous years I have informed this court of this faulty, obsolete, outdated system and your failure to take action does not put the entire burden of repairing it on the sheriff’s shoulders out of the budget that was intended for salaries for our deputies,” Kean said.
Kean suggests the problem be declared an emergency, bypassing the bidding process and using money from the jail’s inmate housing partnership with surrounding counties.
“We make around $900,000 to $950,000 a year for this county, all of which goes into the general fund, none of which is returned to the sheriff’s office. So, the $490,000 we’re asking to fix the radios can easily come out on the inmate contract funds,” Kean said.
With the project now up for bids, there’s yet to be a timeline on how long the bid process or fix will take.