By Leigh Dannhauser
Rockbridge County’s 911 communications system is facing a big upgrade – with a big price tag.
Local officials have known for some time that there were problems with the system. But the derecho – the violent storm that swept through the area in late June – showed them just how badly the upgrade is needed.
“Almost immediately our radio system was overwhelmed and trying to operate above its capacity,” said Craig Sheets, executive director of the Rockbridge Regional Communications Center. “We just couldn’t understand anything.”
There are also problems with coverage and communications because of the county’s terrain. The mountains keep the signals from reaching all of the county.
“With the system being as it is there is no guarantee in all parts of the county that the dispatch units could hear the [emergency squad],” said Rockbridge County Emergency Management Coordinator Robert Foresman.
Sheets says the current system covers only about 80 percent of the county. And a change ordered by the federal government in the communications frequencies that local systems use will reduce that to just over 75 percent, according to a consultant’s report.
Glasgow Fire Chief John Hill says there have also been problems with how his department communicates with others going to the same emergency.
Hill says that is because the squads use different repeaters. Repeaters are devices that relay communication between the responders and the dispatchers.
“The other units have to work on a different repeater,” Hill said. “They don’t know what’s going on, and we can’t communicate directly with them.”
The plan to upgrade the radio system has been talked about for years. Rockbridge County still uses the system it adopted 15 years ago, when most of the emergency responders in Rockbridge County, Lexington and Buena Vista went to a single dispatch channel.
“The system is very old and we’re working off of a lot of stuff that’s original equipment,” Sheets said.
Local officials estimate that fixing the system, including making up for the reduced coverage caused by the new federal rules, will cost $12 million to $15 million. They hope to win federal grant money, Sheets said. But taxpayers from all three municipalities will have to pay for what the grants don’t.
Even if the money is found, completing the project will probably take two years, Sheets said. But the new system should assure emergency communications in more than 90 percent of the county.
“The new system is a fully engineered system designed to give us the maximum coverage possible,” Foresman said.
Local officials think that the transition is worth the cost.
“It would greatly help everybody,” says Hill.