By Courtney Ridenhour

The snowstorm that hit Rockbridge County in December 2009 brought the area to a standstill.  But the county was not the only thing that shut down – so did parts of the emergency communication system.

“We could not talk to first responders in Fairfield,” said Emergency Management Coordinator Robert Foresman.  “We were having problems talking to them in Natural Bridge.”

Upgrading the area’s aging emergency radio system is a multimillion-dollar project that the county, Lexington and Buena Vista must pay for to meet federal standards.  Such an overhaul will require new radio towers.

If the switch is not made by Jan. 1, 2013, the communication system could be shut down, or the localities sanctioned.

The current network has been in place since 1981, when the systems of Lexington, Buena Vista and the county merged.  Law enforcement and fire-and-rescue both rely on the system.

Lexington Police Capt. Bucky Miller said he has never run into problems with his radio.

But problems with the communication system plague the Natural Bridge Fire Department, said one member, who asked to remain unnamed. The department sometimes has trouble receiving transmissions.  Other times, it has trouble sending them.

“We have problems all the time,” the firefighter said. “The [radio] tower’s not even a mile away from here.”

The department relies heavily on the county’s text message alert system to let it know when to respond.

Foresman acknowledged dead spots in the system.

“We’re talking about places that we aren’t able to communicate with the dispatch center on their portable or their hand-held radios,” he said.

Following the 9/11 attacks, the federal government mandated that all emergency communication systems switch to narrow bandwidth systems that allow for more channels of communication.  Systems must also cover 95 percent of the area they serve, and work 95 percent of the time.

Foresman said Rockbridge County’s dispatch center is slowly phasing in new equipment that can be used with a new system.

But he said neither of two plans for the full upgrade is feasible.  A $20 million option that would add 22 additional radio towers to the county is too expensive, he said. And a $6.7 million option would require more upgrades in five years and provide only a short-term fix.

Officials do not have a plan for funding the reconstruction. One major grant program was cut in 2011 and another reduced by 50 percent following budget cuts in the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“Essentially, it was a mandate from the federal government for narrowbanding, and the funding that was being used to conform to that mandate is being taken away,” said Chris McIntosh, Virginia’s interoperability coordinator.

The three localities are now considering tax increases or financing programs, Foresman said.

“I believe that everybody agrees that we should do the project to the best of our ability, but what we don’t want to do is spend [millions].”

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