Hawkins County Public Safety Committee creates task force to tackle emergency communication issues

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ROGERSVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) – The Hawkins County Commission’s Public Safety Committee on Wednesday created a task force to come up with the best solution to solve a problem that has posed a safety risk to emergency response personnel in the county.

Hawkins County Mayor Jim Lee and Hawkins County EMA Director Jamie Miller will head up the task force to decide which of the three options identifies at the county’s public safety committee quarterly meeting.

This task force is necessary due to the old radio communications infrastructure that the county’s emergency communications services have been using, which was made worse when on Dec. 18, 2019, the radio microwave link was lost at the control points from Short Mountain to Bays Mountain, which caused the system to go into complete failure. 

County officials explained that the county’s analog radio communications system is made up of several microwave radio towers that are linked up to send and receive frequencies across the county. Since December, the county’s emergency services’ radio system has been functioning without the towers being linked together.

“Our county typically has a link system that responders in the lower-end of our county and the upper-end of our county have common audio from one device to another, when the systems broke apart, as it is right now, those officers are unable to hear each other if they’re separated by enough distance,” Hawkins County EMA Director Jamie Miller told News Channel 11 Wednesday.

Miller explained that county emergency personnel might start their day on one end of the county and make their way across to another end of the county in a matter of hours, so he said that it is vital the task force finds a solution so they can hear audio while responding to emergencies.

“A common problem we have right now is they cover one another up because they can’t hear one another, and they’re both trying to talk at the same time on different repeater sites,” Miller explained.

No radio system can cover 100 percent of Hawkins County, Miller explained, due to the mountains that surround the county.

Miller played several audio recordings of radio traffic recorded on Jan. 3, from the Hawkins County emergency services at the meeting. During the recording only clicking noises and static is audible. Miller explained that the clicking noise was a police officer attempting to make contact with his chief, but was unable to make contact because of the radio system failure.

Several options were discussed at the county’s public safety meeting Wednesday.

“Basically there’s three options, as we are today because we are operational which is analog, and then I’ve presented two digital solutions as well, DMR and P-25 TACN, which is the state system, both systems work a little bit differently on how they’re configured,” Miller said.

If the county decides to keep its current analog system, a new microwave radio will have to be purchased for nearly $12,000 and it would take eight weeks to arrive from New Zealand. Miller added during the meeting on Wednesday that he was not sure if that cost included labor and installation fees. Another option would be to send the broken radio back to the manufacturer for repairs, but Miller also added that there is no guarantee that it will be able to be repaired and there would be no timeline available as to how long the radio would be out of commission.

Miller explained to the public safety committee members that he was told by experts that it would be very complex and expensive to fix the current system.

Two digital protocols are going to be considered to potentially replace the current system.

The first digital option is P-25 Tennessee Advanced Communication Network, and the second option is Digital Mobile Radio, commonly referred to as MotoTRBO.

In the meeting, Miller provided a pros and cons list for each option.

TACN, he said, would be unable to cover the entire Hawkins County due to infrastructure issues. To bring the infrastructure up to date for it to be suitable, would be an enormous cost. This option would cost an additional $142,000 recurring annual fee, on top of the costs to update the infrastructure, purchase and install the system.

DMR, he added, would cost a little over $700,000 overall. With this system, the county could use the infrastructure already in place. An option is available for the county to utilize a mobile application to use the radio on mobile devices as well.

Miller said the task force will be faced with many questions that it will be expected to answer. Money, and who has to pay that money, was one of the top questions at the meeting Wednesday.

“One being end-user devices, who would take care of that cost, how the system would be configured as far as talk-groups, that type of technology has never been used in this county, so it would be completely starting – if we decide to go digital, and go with talk groups – it would be completely different than what’s been used in this county before, so we’d have to look at doing needs assessment to see what we would need as far as talk-groups,” Miller said.

During the Wednesday meeting, Miller said that the end-user devices (handheld radios) already owned by the county that may need to be replaced, could be sold, and the income generated from those sales could be contributed to cover the cost of new devices.

Mayor Lee said during the meeting that the radio issue is “long overdue,” and needs to be addressed as soon as possible.

“Obviously we’re in the position of developing this task force and we’ll have people with different areas of expertise, different agency backgrounds, just to make sure we get the best solution overall for this radio system, whatever that solution may be,” Miller assured.

The county’s public safety meeting voted Wednesday to meet monthly, instead of quarterly, until this issue is resolved. The next meeting is scheduled for Feb. 5, at 3 p.m.

“This is top priority in this office at the moment to get the best functioning system available online,” Miller said.

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