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Kentucky Responders Struggling with Radio Issues

LIBERTY, Ky. -- When it comes to a fire, every second counts.

So it’s understandable that the majority of fire chiefs in Casey County are upset that for the last few months they’ve had trouble hearing fire calls from E-911 dispatch.

According to the group, there have been problems with communication on the fire channel and transmissions have been difficult to hear or almost non-existent.

“Every minute we don’t know where the fire is at or what’s going on is a minute wasted,” said Louis Shirk, chief at Evona Fire Department. “Sometimes it’s clear as a bell but most of the time it’s not. It could hurt everybody if we don’t get it fixed.”

There are separate radio channels/frequencies for the fire departments, the sheriff’s department, city police, etc.

“You can barely understand it. It cuts in and out and has a lot of static,” said Robby Murphy, fire chief at East Casey County Volunteer Fire Department. “It’s been a problem on every call we’ve had since December.”

The radio communication tower is located behind the Poplar Springs Fire Department on Dry Ridge Road, one of the highest points in the area.

The county switched the fire channel repeater to narrowband frequency before the end of 2012 as part of a nationwide effort to ensure more efficient use of all public safety radio systems.

“The fire channel wasn’t as good as some channels before the switch, but we could function with it up until then,” Shirk said.

When the switch was made, preliminary checks revealed that there might be a problem with the tower’s duplexer so it was replaced on Jan. 29, said Rick Wesley, director of Casey County Emergency Management.

“We replaced the duplexer on it and thought we had it fixed,” Wesley said.

Casey County Judge-Executive Ronald Wright said that he hasn’t heard from any fire departments and has had only one magistrate ask him for an update on the status of the repeater.

“It should hopefully be taken care of this week if we can get the stuff to fix it,” Wright said.

The current repeater was put in on July 29, 2010 for $9,450.27, according to Deputy Judge Judy Allen. It replaced a repeater that had been struck by lightning, Wesley said.

“Even though this is kind of a stumbling stone for the firefighters, the good news is they have an alternate channel that they are and can be using the emergency inter-op channel we put in seven or eight years ago.”

The inter-op channel makes it so that no one is ever in a situation where they can’t communicate with dispatch.

“We’ve very glad we have it in place so that they can use it until the fire channel is up and running like it was,” Wesley said.

Where is the fire?

However, part of the current problem is that fire departments aren’t hearing the initial call from dispatch to them. The inter-op channel doesn’t help when the fire tone is first called out on the fire channel.

“We have to sit and wait for it to page on another channel,” said Jeff Owens, fire chief at Dunnville Volunteer Fire Department.

The delay can cost response time, which could be dangerous.

“In the right circumstances it could be deadly,” Owens said.

If they don’t hear the fire call or can’t understand it, they don’t know where to go.

“It’s hard to respond with very little information,” said Larry Dale Harris, fire chief with Southeast Casey County Volunteer Fire Department.

There was a fire in Dunnville on Feb. 5 that Owens didn’t hear on the first call because of the radio.

“They dropped the tone the first time and I didn’t hear a thing,” said Shirk, who is also captain for the Dunnville Fire Dept. “I just almost caught it the second time so I called dispatch (on the phone) and asked about it. I still had no idea where we were going. It’s just bad, really bad.”

Problems with the channel can go well beyond the initial call.

“If we get out in the county and need back up manpower or medical and we need it right then and you can’t use that channel to get out it’s going to hurt us in the long run,” Murphy said.

It can also be dangerous for everyone involved.

“If we go to a fire and can’t hear what’s going on, that’s dangerous for my guys and the homeowners who may be trapped in there and can’t tell us where they’re at,” said Mike McQueary, chief at Poplar Springs. “That bothers me.”

He feels the problem has existed far too long.

“It’s been like this for three months. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be fixed by now,” McQueary said.

Cellphones vs. radios

In the meantime, several departments have had to rely on cellphones to communicate with each other and dispatch.

“I just use my cellphone; it’s a lot easier,” Owens said.

If not for their cellphones, some departments would have missed fire calls.

“There’s been several calls I’ve not heard because of the repeater and if it wasn’t for me having a firefighter who works on dispatch in the afternoon who sends me a text message asking if I heard a call I wouldn’t have known about them,” Harris said.

It has also caused problems from the scene.

South East Volunteer Fire Department was called out to a one-vehicle accident in January and needed to communicate with EMS.

“We couldn’t understand anything,” Harris said. “It was pitiful. I finally called dispatch on my phone. We just have to hope we can keep within cell phone distance so we can talk. We needed to tell EMS what we had. Sometimes when wrecks are far enough out, we’ll be there five or more minutes before EMS. We’ll be on scene checking patients trying to relay back to EMS and it’s just about impossible.”

Time to fix the problem

“I would like to see fire service have a bigger repeater with more wattage to help us out in our trouble areas,” Harris said. “I’m probably 17 miles from the repeater and I don’t hear it.”

On Monday afternoon, Stewart Walker and Jonathan Nose with London Radio Service made a service call with Wesley to troubleshoot the repeater.

“We want this fixed as soon as possible,” Wesley said. “We’ve been trying to get it taken care of and we’ll continue until the problem is solved. We want it fixed and we want to provide the best equipment and service that we can for our responders.”
Jonathan Nose with London Radio Service does troubleshooting on the fire channel repeater on Monday.


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