Tenn. firefighters air concerns over digital radio system

A major concern is the unpredictable sound quality of a digital system that could lead to accidents

By Don Jacobs
Knoxville News-Sentinel

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A new digital radio system for the Knox County E-911 Center is hailed as the wave of the future in emergency communications, but few firefighters are cheering the technology.

"It's a thing with digital radio systems as a whole," Knoxville Fire Department Capt. Mark Wilbanks told the 10 members of the Knox County E-911 Board of Directors in attendance Wednesday. "Digital radio changes the way we have to operate. For the police and sheriff's department, it doesn't fundamentally change the way they work. It does for us."

Knoxville Fire Chief Stan Sharp, a member of the board, said he is reviewing various options to make the digital system safer for firefighters. At issue is the sound quality of a digital system, which can be either great or nonexistent, he said. Firefighters standing a few yards away can miss an order to evacuate a collapsing building because of a dropped radio signal.

Sharp asked Wilbanks to speak to the board on firefighters' concerns about the new technology. The Knox County E-911 Board has asked to join the Tennessee Valley Regional Communications System, based in Chattanooga, as an alternative to buying a separate digital system.

"I think the whole board should be concerned about the issues the fire department raised," said Knoxville Mayor Madeline Rogero, also a member of the board.

If those issues aren't resolved, she said the board should not approve a nearly $10 million Motorola Solutions system that would become part of the regional system.

Wilbanks emphasized firefighters' concerns evolve around digital technology and not any specific brand of radio.

Sharp said he is considering mounting radio repeaters on fire engines to boost radio transmissions from a fire scene. The city also has obtained several simplex, or single signal, radio channels from the Federal Communications Commission that can be used at a fire scene.

"Firefighters are leery of digital," said Pat Rollins, director of the regional communications system.

Firefighters in Chattanooga at a blaze switch to simplex channels, Rollins said.

"Simplex is radio-to-radio, like a walkie-talkie," Rollins said.

That eliminates the need for a radio transmission to broadcast to a repeater and then be rebroadcast to other radios.

Knox E-911 officials have asked the governing body of the regional communications system to allow Knox County to become an active partner on the wide-area system, but with its own master site. The regional system serves 13 counties in East Tennessee and northern Georgia.

A master site controls radio communications, including which radios can operate on the system, and can accommodate special talk groups among emergency services providers. Among the regional system's partners, only Chattanooga has a master site.

"It gives us the interoperability (between agencies) we want with an option to leave if we want to," Wilbanks told the board.

Interoperability allows workers from one emergency agency to communicate with other agencies.

Knox County Director of Purchasing Hugh Holt said he got $5 million in price concessions from Motorola on a new digital radio system for Knox County, but the slashed costs expire June 30. That means Knox County must devise a new memorandum of understanding with the regional system and governing bodies for both agencies have to approve the agreement before that date.

Knox County has been a partner on the regional system for years, but not an active one. Knox County E-911 allowed the regional system to install radio equipment on two broadcast towers to provide coverage in Knox County to other users of the regional system.

Records show 85 radios on the regional system in Knox County. The county emergency management agency has 48; Rural/Metro has 13; the Knoxville Volunteer Emergency Rescue Squad has 12; and the Karns Volunteer Fire Department and the University of Tennessee Police Department each have six.

Daron Long, an E-911 board member who is chief of the Karns Volunteer Fire Department, said the department obtained the radios three years ago at the recommendation of the federal government. The devices have never been used in a multi-agency emergency, Long said.

The deal Holt negotiated with Motorola would provide 97 percent radio coverage. Motorola did not have to bid on the project because Motorola supplies the regional system and the county can buy Motorola products through an established state contract, Holt said.

Rogero questioned a Motorola radio representative Wednesday about the June 30 deadline on the price reductions. She asked why Motorola wouldn't extend the deadline to allow the board to make a decision about joining the regional system and buying the Motorola equipment.

"We'll do everything we can to work with you, but I am stretched," Motorola territorial vice president Randy Johnson told the group.

The board voted unanimously to empower a working group of members of the Knox E-911 users committee to codify the county's needs in an agreement between the regional communications system and the E-911 board.

"There's a lot to work out with the details, and it's not going to be easy," Wilbanks told the board. "Let's get those things worked out so we don't have change orders, or this could be a $20 million system."

Wilbanks asked the board for expert help in developing and installing the new system, prompting Rogero to make a motion to have Holt select "an independent engineer" to manage the project. The motion passed without opposition.

The E-911 board also agreed to accept the immediate resignation of E-911 Center Executive Director Bob Coker with a three-month severance package of pay and health care insurance. The package pays Coker $35,921.59, ending his 11-year oversight of the E-911 center. He was paid about $130,000 annually.

With Coker's exit, the board unanimously voted in E-911 Technical Services Manager Alan Bull as the interim director. The board asked its finance committee to review increasing Bull's $96,928 annual salary because of his additional duties.

The board took no action on selecting a new director.

Copyright 2016 the Knoxville News-Sentinel

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