911 dispatchers asking, 'Can you hear me now?'

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

By Clint Confehr

Senior Staff Writer

Sometimes when an emergency radio dispatcher announces a fire or car crash, some walkie-talkies in Marshall County don't receive the call. The technical problem was raised last week by a Lewisburg dispatcher.

Two police officers were standing next to each other and one's hand-held radio received an emergency call, as did the radio in a nearby patrol cruiser, but the other officer's walkie-talkie remained silent, Lewisburg Police Communications Supervisor Alissa Kruger explained.

Marshall County Emergency Medical Service Director James Whorley raised the point saying, "We want to make sure they're getting the call." He approached the county's Emergency Communications District Board saying he "found out that 911 money could be used" to fix the problem. The money is from fees paid for 911 service by every telephone customer.

The problem might, otherwise, be likened to a mobile phone company's humorous TV commercial pitching faster digital mobile service so you won't be left out of a social situation. Kruger, however, sees nothing funny about it.

"We paged out a fire last week and he didn't get it," she said of one of the emergency responders. "Now, we know to call him" on the telephone.

Another solution at the ambulance station in Chapel Hill is to have the emergency announcements patched into a public address system in the building.

That's been remarkably effective since the volume is loud and it was noted that the alert's sound could "blow you out of the building," EMS Communications Director Joey King said.

Still, "It's not like somebody's missed an ambulance call," King said.

Nor is it like the loudspeaker at the ambulance station is heard at Chapel Hill Elementary School nearby, but it is part of a new requirement from the Federal Communications Commission. Use of a new narrow radio band is required by Jan. 1, 2013. Marshall County is in compliance, but installation has come with bugs.

"You're still getting the response," Lewisburg Fire Chief Larry Williams said after the monthly meeting of the county's Emergency 911 Board. "You're just not getting the numbers of responses in some areas, but we're going to track it down and fix it."

Marshall County isn't alone on this issue.

Warren County faced similar issues, according to Jack Cathey of Mega Watt Communications, one of the electronics vendors at the meeting.

Since the problem arose after installation of the narrow-band equipment, Williams called for placement of additional equipment at the Chapel Hill station. The cost is estimated at nearly $5,000.

Lewisburg Police Chief Chuck Forbis sought assurances that will solve the problem and Board Chairman Chris Gilbert asked about a "trial period." Board Attorney Cecilia Spivy asked: "Do we have a money-back guarantee?"

Nashville-based Wireless Solutions Inc. account executive Stan Duke said yes and the board voted for the expenditure of funds.