April 22, 2021

Emergency communications system ‘loud and clear’

“Union County 88-1, ... radio check please.”

“88-1, you are 10-2.”

Union County Sheriff Mark Sheriff made the ceremonial first call and dispatch responded with the code for “loud and clear” on the county’s new $7.2 million emergency communications system during the Union County Board of Supervisors weekly meeting 9 a.m. Monday at the Union County Courthouse.

The first call was well attended with Union County Emergency Management Director Jo Anne Duckworth, Union County Dispatcher Tamara Fitzgerald, Shepherd and Chief Deputy Chris Knouse, Creston Police Chief Paul Ver Meer, Afton Fire Chief Brett Weiss, Deb Stuchel of Lorimor Fire and Rescue, and Motorola representatives Nicklas Collins and Brian Flynn in attendance as well as Union County Supervisors Ron Riley, Dennis Brown and Rick Friday and auditor Sandy Hysell.

“We will mark this project closed and ... it’s 100% yours,” Collins said.

‘Life or death’

Duckworth and then-head dispatcher for Union County Mark Williams called the program a “life or death” issue when they advocated for it in 2018, saying dispatchers were unable to communicate with Afton fire fighters when they were in the eastern areas of the county and the previous system had no way to page the Lorimor Fire Department at all. The Union County dispatcher had to call the Madison County dispatcher, who then paged Lorimor. Some buildings in the county also posed a problem for communication, including inside Greater Regional Health, where EMS often had trouble receiving pages.

“From where we started in 2008, the coverage was definitely bad and officer safety was an issue,” Ver Meer said.

An August 2019 four-county car chase highlighted the gaps in the system when officers and dispatchers from the various agencies were unable to communicate during the pursuit. In 2012, after a tornado struck parts of Creston including the hospital, county and state agencies had difficulty coordinating the response because they could not communicate directly.

The new digital system will allow every public safety agency in Union County: Creston and Afton police departments, Lorimor, Afton and Creston fire departments, Union County Sheriff and Union County Emergency Management to communicate with each other and outside agencies, such as the Iowa State Patrol, that already have the digital system.

Duckworth said the sound on the new radio system is “crystal clear” and reaches parts of Union County not able to be reached previously. She also spoke of the supervisors commitment to getting the project done, saying it would have been “years and years” before the individual departments could have come up with the funding to upgrade the systems on their own.

“You did it the right way,” Duckworth said. “And we all benefit.”

“Before it was pretty much hit and miss, we just went on a fire on our own. If we needed help, we had to pick up the phone to call mutual aid. Now ... everybody in the county can know who is doing what, ”Weiss said.

Shepherd said they have experienced some connectivity problems in the Law Enforcement Center due to its concrete structure, but Motorola is already working on adding an antenna to help fix the issue.

Flynn and Collins spoke of the ability to add to the system in the future: schools, public works, utilities and other agencies could use the system.

“The nice thing is this isn’t just a one and done. You now have this infrastructure and this coverage blanketing Union County so that (other organizations) like a school ... if they want to move forward and outfit any of their transportation buses for sporting events traveling through the region or the state,” Collins said. “As your needs grow, this system is built to grow with you.”

History

In December 2019, the Board of Supervisors passed a bond not to exceed $7,150,000 to fund the $7,218,052 system. Although there have been a few changes along the way, the project stayed within its budget, $204,330 under the projected cost. The $1.859,532 for the10-year maintenance contract, included in the original budget, will be held in county accounts to draw interest until it is paid out in yearly installments.

Originally planned to be finished by the end of 2019, the completion of the project faced delays due to the relocation of one of the four towers, waiting for another tower to be repainted, and delivery and construction delays due to COVID-19.

Riley praised Duckworth for her commitment to getting the communications system completed.

“Jo has been the driving force in getting this all going and worked out. A big thank you to her because it’s been a huge project,” he said.

The Union County Board of Supervisors meets weekly 9 a.m. Monday at the Union County Courthouse, 300 N. Pine St. The supervisors are still meeting in person at this time, but the public is encouraged to submit comments for public forum by mail, email or telephone to help limit the gathering to 10 participants.

REGINA SMITH

Reporter, columnist, teacher, children's book author, book store owner - Regina Smith has a wide range of experience in writing and education. She combines those interests and experiences to cover city and county government and human interest stories as well as writing a biweekly column in her home town of Creston, Iowa.