New radio system focuses on officer safety

Clay County Sheriff's investigator Stephen Young uses the department's existing digital radio system. It could be a thing of the past within a year
Staff Writer

One of the nation's largest cell phone companies successfully spread its name with a commercial that focused on, "Can you hear me now?"

Imagine being a sheriff's deputy responding to a call in a remote rural area and having to ask a dispatcher the same thing on the police radio?

Unfortunately, it's happening in Clay County. But county leaders are trying to do something about it.

In fact, Clay County and West Point and all the emergency responders falling under their umbrellas are looking at a system they hope will improve safety, lower long-term costs and enhance regional communication.

"Not having communication just gives you a bad feeling when you are out there by yourself," Sheriff Eddie Scott said of the primary reason for the effort to replace the current digital radio system used by his department, volunteer firefighters, city police and fire units and others.

The idea is to connect local agencies to what is known as MSWIN -- the Mississippi Wireless Communication Network, which was born from the state's experience during and after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. State and local agencies realized the inability to easily communicate hampered and delayed emergency responses considerably. The network was developed and is spreading across the state with the goal of eventually having almost every state and local law enforcement -- from sheriff's and police to state troopers and wildlife and prison officers -- to fire departments and ambulance services to utilities on the same system.

While the benefits are aimed at statewide emergencies, they most directly have day-today benefits in places like Clay County.

"Right now, we only have really reliable coverage in about 70 percent of the county. For volunteer firefighters, it's even worse," Scott said of how well his radios operate. "That's not to say we can't reach a deputy at times, but it means sometimes we drop calls or have to repeat things three or four times. We've got some really remote areas," he continued, citing places as diverse as Town Creek boat ramp on the east to Happy Hollow in the northwest.

When the county put in a new digital system five years ago, it initially was an improvement over what was in place before. But new users like Columbus Air Force Base and area industries and utilities mean more traffic on the air waves.

"We've just got a whole lot more interference now than we did just a few years ago," Scott explained. "It's something that's always in the back of your mind ... we're all on edge. It's a major safety issue."

In addition, to communicate with each other, deputies and West Point Police officers have to switch channels on their radios. The same goes for volunteer or city firefighters.

On the new network, they'd all be bundled in the same groups and simply would click and talk.

MsWIN has done an analysis of the city and county systems and local governments are in the beginning stages of discussing whether to buy in and if so, how to finance it. For the sheriff's department and E-911, it would cost about $93,000 for some 25 radio systems.

Volunteer fire departments and city systems would be additional costs. But the radios and related equipment will last 15 years or so.

In the last 12 years, the county has spent $700,000 alone on radio systems and repairs.

Scott says it's not unusual for him to sign purchase orders for $1,000 to $1,500 a month for repairs or replacement parts. In addition, storms often damage the four repeaters that help transmit signals across the county. The repeaters alone cost $5,000, the sheriff said.

Even simply upgrading the existing digital system would be expensive and wouldn't eliminate the current safety and seamless communication issues.

"The costs for the new system sounds expensive on the front end but when you look at what we've been spending, the life expectancy of this equipment, the fact the state network will be responsible for upgrades and the towers that are the backbone of the network, the safety issue, the convenience, just everything, it's not very expensive at all," Scott said.

The list of real-life examples and what-ifs to support the need for the system is long, the sheriff says.

Scott noted that when a tornado struck Montpelier in 2011, his deputies and volunteer firefighters basically had to resort to old fashioned two-way handheld radios to communicate because the repeaters were down as was cell phone service.

"We didn't have cell phone or reliable radio service for days," he said.

Likewise, the list of advantages also is long.

In addition to easy links to West Point Police, the network would make regional communication just a click away since state troopers,

North Mississippi Medical Center, and Lowndes and Lee counties already are on the system, as are a growing number of utilities.

Starkville and Oktibbeha County are going to it and most other agencies in the region soon will be following suit.

"We tested two of these radios at Town Creek. Right now, you almost have to climb a tree out there to get service. We had two of these handhelds and it was clear as a bell. You get West Point police and fire on it, North Mississippi and the volunteer firefighters and our service, response, everything, will get better," Scott said.