MILFORD – More than 100 law enforcement and fire-rescue personnel crowded an auditorium Tuesday night and insisted that Caroline County officials replace the county’s outdated radio system.
Led by Caroline Sheriff Tony Lippa, some of the workers crowded in front of the stage, where members of the Board of Supervisors, were seated and asked the board to sign a contract with Motorola for a new $6.5 million radio system.
The county’s aging radio system is used by school bus drivers, school administrators, law enforcement officers, fire and rescue, and public utility workers.
The Federal Communications Commission made a decision a decade ago to develop more radio frequencies for two-way radios by creating a narrow banding mandate, which went into effect this year. In layman’s terms, narrow banding means changing from a full width to a half-width channel or from a 25 kHz radio system to a 12.5 kHz efficiency channel.
The supervisors appeared ready to sign a contract with Motorola for a $6.5 million radio system in March, but they balked at the annual $239,000 operational fee and an optional software maintenance agreement for $100,000. The board backed away from the deal again in April.
The county paid $150,000 for an independent consultant that recommended Motorola’s system.
County officials have also looked at saving money by tying in with Hanover or Spotsylvania and paying to use their equipment.
Lippa and others do not want Caroline to piggyback on the radio systems of another county. Caroline would be at the mercy of the other locality and would have to accept any future changes to its radio system, they argue.
Firefighters, rescue workers and dispatchers described the risks involved in the county’s 30-year old communications system, such as lapses between dispatchers and deputies and firefighters that have occurred at crucial times in certain parts of the county.
One unnamed firefighter was trapped inside a burning house and had to leap out a window because he lost radio contact with his hand-held two-way radio, said Lippa. In remote parts of the county, cell phones are just as unreliable, the sheriff said.
Lippa brought a recording of examples of radio lapses to play for the public and supervisors, but Supervisor Floyd Thomas, chairman of the board, told him that supervisors would listen to it in private. Lippa told reporters later that he could not release a transcript of the recording because of concerns about liability.
A contract with Motorola would be the best decision, Maj. Scott Moser of the Caroline Sheriff’s Office told supervisors.
Only 82 percent of the county has radio system coverage at any given time, and that percentage drops to 42 percent with some of the hand-held radios. Motorola has said its system would provide 95 percent or better coverage.
“We are the one voice that the person can hear in an emergency,” said Lisa Harvey, a county dispatcher. “It’s the most awful thing in the world to try to hear what that person said and you can’t. I want a (system) where I can hear my deputies and fire and rescue workers.”
Jason Satterwhite of Bowling Green, who served on a committee that evaluated options for the radio system, asked supervisors not to tie Caroline in with another county. “Let’s not ride on the coattails of someone else,” he said. Motorola’s system would serve the county for 15 to 20 years, he noted.
Thomas told the gathering that the county must sign a contract for a new system by June 30. “And we are going to do that,” he added.
“We are still negotiating with Motorola and struggling with how to pay for that” new system, Thomas said. “Everyone in this room will help pay for that. We fully intend to make a decision shortly.”
Supervisor Reggie Underwood reminded the audience that the board has agreed to narrow band the radio system. “We are elected to explore every aspect and option,” he added.
“I’ve believed from the beginning that Motorola was our best option,” said Supervisor Calvin Taylor.
Supervisor Wayne Acors said he wants Caroline to avoid tying in with another county. He pointed out that the county shares a regional jail with Hanover County and Ashland and those localities “drive the decisions” related to the jail.
As for the radio system, “we will do what’s best for Caroline County,” Acors said. “This has been going on far too long.”