October 3, 2019 10:13:12 AM
Lowndes County supervisors have agreed to purchase $919,000 in two-way radios for all current rural firefighters and chiefs.
The board voted Monday morning to buy the 200-plus Motorola communication devices and other equipment on state contract pricing from Jackson Communications. Radios should be delivered, programmed and in use by mid-to-late November.
County Fire Services Coordinator Neil Austin said the new radios will interconnect with the Mississippi Wireless Integrated Network, which will allow rural volunteer firefighters to communicate on a digital frequency with other Mississippi agencies -- including the Lowndes County Sheriff's Office and local E-911, as well as first responders in surrounding counties. There are two MSWIN towers already in the county.
Rural firefighters are now outfitted with analog VHF (very high frequency) radio equipment that has left them lacking communication with other responding agencies during emergencies, Austin said. Moreover, their current radios often limit firefighters' communication with each other to a radius of a few hundred yards, and dead or staticky zones in the western part of the county (areas around Crawford and Artesia) and along Highway 69 east of Columbus render the radios even less effective, especially when trying to talk with E-911 dispatchers.
"We've resorted to having our firefighters use their cell phones when they're out on calls because the radios just will not communicate," Austin said. "We're in a big county where a lot of our response is in rural, sparsely populated areas. ... So, sometimes (cell phones) aren't real reliable because cell service may not be great where we are, or especially in a severe storm when cell service is often one of the first things that goes down."
Austin said he and several rural firefighters have spent more than two years researching how to fix the radio communication problem, and departments successfully tested the Motorola devices before recommending them for purchase.
"It's been a huge undertaking and I'm very excited the supervisors chose to support us," Austin said. "It greatly improves safety for us just by being able to know where our guys are and who's with them. That's especially true when you consider some of our firefighters respond to medical calls by themselves in a personal vehicle."
The county can finance the radio equipment through Motorola over three, five or seven years. But at County Administrator Ralph Billingsley's suggestion, supervisors opted Monday to first check financing options at local banks. If one of those banks can offer better terms, the county will likely borrow from there to pay Motorola up front, then repay the bank over three years.
"I know it's expensive and people may ask if it's worth it, but I guess it depends on how much you think one life is worth," board of supervisors president Harry Sanders said. "If you're in an area where somebody's trapped in a house that's burning down or they're drowning, it's worth it to have the radios.
"The question would be like, 'Do you want a 2019 Ford F150 or a 1932 pickup?'" he added. "Both will get you where you want to go, if they're running. But they aren't the same. ... These (current) radios are old, and they need to be replaced."
Both Sanders and Austin said, though, the large-scale radio buy is a "one-shot deal." The county's five rural fire districts will be responsible for replacing lost or damaged devices, as well as providing radios for additional volunteers who sign on after all other new radios are assigned.
Austin said in those cases districts will either use property tax money the county already allocates to districts annually or insurance rebate money -- both sources commonly used by those departments toward equipment purchases.
Zack Plair is the managing editor for The Dispatch.
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