Hawkins mayor seeks grant to upgrade failing emergency radio system

Jeff Bobo • Jan 24, 2020 at 7:30 PM

ROGERSVILLE – On Monday the Hawkins County Commission will be asked to approve a resolution authorizing Mayor Jim Lee to apply for a $400,000 community development block grant (CDBG) to purchase equipment for the county's ailing emergency radio system.

A second resolution authorizes Lee to contract with the grant assistance firm of Administrative Management Services, which is well known to some area governmental entities including Church Hill and Bean Station which have had success using them to apply for grants in the past.

Hawkins County's deadline to apply for this year's CDBG is on Feb. 28. If approved, the county would pay a 20 percent match.

Three emergency radio failures in two months (Nov. 2, Dec. 18 and Jan. 5) ultimately required the utilization of all backup emergency radio equipment at the county’s three antenna locations to continue countywide emergency radio communications.

Earlier this month the county commission's Public Safety Committee asked Mayor Jim Lee to appoint a task force to study options for upgrading the county’s emergency radio system, and then report back to the Safety Committee with a recommendation.

That task force was scheduled to meet this week, and is expected to have multiple meetings before a plan is presented.

The CDBG funding, assuming it is approved, would be used to move forward with whatever emergency radio plan the County Commission approves after the task force has made its recommendation.

“We're pretty aggressive on this situation here,” Lee told the Budget Committee Tuesday. “It's serious. This radio communication has been a serious problem for years, and we're going to have to do something. We've got lives at stake out here, not only public safety, but the community.”

Budget Committee chairman John Metz noted that the commission put $350,000 into upgrading the radio system around 2015. The purpose of those upgrades was to eliminate massive radio communication dead spots throughout the county.

Miller noted that any gains that were made with the 2015 upgrades were lost during the recent outages. Miller said there is countywide radio service at this time but it is with older backup equipment.

“That (2015) infrastructure has all been abandoned except for three repeaters,” Miller told the Budget Committee Tuesday. “At this moment we're down to three repeaters that was purchased with that money that are still active. Everything else in the system is 2005 equipment, and we're out of spares.”

Miller said there is a company they can get in touch with quickly if the currently system goes down because there is no spare equipment.

“We're operating on three independent sites — Bays Mountain, Town Knob and Short Mountain,” Miller said. “Before they were all tied together but we basically lost enough of that infrastructure, that's not possible at the moment.”

Miller added, “A responder in (far east) Mount Carmel and a responder in (far west) Slate Hill can't hear each other. So they key up at the same time, they key over each other and no one hears anything.”

Commissioner Rick Brewer: “We got to do something to fix this problem, and if it's something we have to spend a little money on the front end to keep our officer, firemen and first responders safe, we need to spend that money.”

Although the task force hasn't made its recommendation yet, Miller told the Budget Committee Tuesday his research shows the best remedy for the county radio system is to go digital.

Earlier this month Miller presented the Public Safety Committee with two options for a digital radio upgrade.

Option one, which was presented as the less feasible, was the P25 Tennessee Advanced Communications Network (TACN) commonly referred to as the state system, which is estimated to cost $3.38 million, with an annual recurring cost of $142,000, not including equipment upgrades for Hawkins County Central Dispatch.

The second option presented by Miller was for a DMR (Digital Mobile Radio) system at an estimated cost of $723,459, not including the cost of equipment upgrades for Central Dispatch.

Brewer: “We're down to the backup plan right now, and if the backup goes down we don't have a backup to the backup.”

Miller: “We're down to purchasing.”

Miller said the county commission shouldn't expect a recommendation from the task force when it meets in regular session Monday.

The Public Safety Committee meets again on Feb. 5, at which time an update will be given on the progress of the task force.