ROGERSVILLE, Tenn. (WJHL) — The Hawkins County Public Safety Committee met Wednesday with the search for Summer Wells and its impact on county resources being an overarching theme.
The county’s troubled 911 and radio system between first responders was the point of contention during the meeting.
Leaders with the Church Hill Rescue Squad, Hawkins County Rescue Squad, EMA and 911, and other emergency operations leaders spoke in front of the committee.
“TEMA and Sullivan Co. EMA provided us with the cache of approximately 50 radios to hand out to the responders that were on scene,” explained 911 Director Lynn Campbell. “If it hadn’t been for them providing those radios, we would have been in a mess in Beech Creek. We would have had no communications with all these people.”
Capt. Tim Coup from the Church Hill Rescue Squad was there. He also serves as the incident commander of search operations for Summer Wells.
“If you’ve not been off Beech Creek and pulled off Beech Creek Road and pulled on to Ben Hill Road, Fields Road, Bells Road and started looking at that terrain — one ill step…seriously injured or killed and we had 1,194 people searching that area,” he explained. “I don’t want to go to one of my members, I’m sure Hawkins County Rescue Squad, EMS, you guys, don’t want to make that door knock or on the phone going, ‘your child, father, brother, sister, mother — they’re not coming home because of lack of communication and safety for these guys that are doing these as a volunteer, for free.”
There was a lot of praise toward emergency leaders but committee members said they felt the commission was blamed for the communication issues. Some pushed back since the county has had several meetings over funding and fixing the system.
“We can’t do nothing for radios until we see a resolution or something coming from us to decide what to do with the radios,” said Michael Harrell, the chair for the public safety committee. “And I don’t know how come we always get a finger pointed at us, we have done everything that we’re supposed to do that we’ve seen in front of us so far.”
Harrell also said the communications issued had been a concern since long before Summer Wells was reported missing. However, he felt he had a responsibility to the taxpayers of Hawkins County when in came to accountability for communications infrastructure funding.
“Why we need 600 radios? I need to know that so I can tell the taxpayers ‘hey, they need so many for the sheriff’s office, so many for EMS, so many for rescue squad, so many for fire department.’ I mean, we need to know numbers, not just a number throwed in a pot,” he said.
In June of last year, the committee approved spending up to $30,000 to fix the system that failed in late 2019. It’s unclear what happened with that approval.
“We gave y’all the ‘okay’ to do the bandaid to fix it and nobody done it… nobody done it,” said Vice-Chair Dawson Fields in a heated exchange with EMA Director Jamie Miller.
“The archived audio’s out there, we’ll pull it up,” Miller responded.
“Don’t walk off Mr. Miller. If you’ve got something to say, seriously, let’s talk about it,” said Fields.
I don’t have the facts from every one of those meetings,” said Miller. “We can pull that archived audio.”
“I don’t need to pull it up because I can tell where everybody was sitting when it was said,” said Fields.
In his report, Capt. Coup said the leaders were trying to ask the commission for help.
“We’re not pointing blame. I don’t think any agency would point a finger at any one of you guys or any of them when everyone of these seats are filled,” said Coup. “This is just providing information to help you make the right decision for us.”
Back in September, the commission approved $425,000 for an analog system and recently received a $250,000 emergency community development block grant the following month. On June 10, the state approved the funding and the purchase order for the system was put out the following day, just days before Summer went missing.
Due to equipment shortages, it could take 10 weeks for the system to come in and even longer before it can be installed. Later on, a new resolution would need to be brought forth to upgrade the analog system to digital and tie the site altogether as well as buy field radios for all of the first responders.
Searchers in the Summer Wells case say they hope some issues are addressed.
“Some of the radios has some frequencies, some of them don’t, so that’s an issue that could be resolved or could be addressed in the future radio system whenever the county decides to pursue,” Corey Young of the Hawkins County Rescue Squad said at the meeting.
Funds have already been allocated for communications improvements and orders already placed for new radios, but Jamie Miller says that’s not enough.
“Hawkins County’s been awarded $509,858 of state COVID relief money. It’s our desire that that money would be used to enhance public safety communications in Hawkins County,” he said.
In the end, the hope for new radios goes hand-in-hand with another hope in Hawkins County.
“We all are praying for her safety, to come home. We pray for all the public safety workers that’s there searching,” Commissioner Harrell said.
Harrell added that the county commission will meet Monday to discuss the budget – which could lead to some answers regarding the public safety communications issues in Hawkins County.