LOUISBURG — A Miami County Sheriff’s deputy recently found himself on a communications island in the middle of the night while responding to a report of suspicious activity on the west side of the county.
At 2:16 a.m. June 7 the deputy located suspicious vehicles at the intersection of 287th Street and Pleasant Valley Road — and communication with dispatch abruptly ceased.
“The deputy started yelling, ‘Get back in the vehicle’ and radio was then cut off,” 911 dispatch center Communications Supervisor Allison Ray wrote in a follow-up report. “Dispatch had units upgrade to assist and dispatch tried to check on units multiple times with no answer.”
Another deputy who was just two miles away also could not reach him by radio.
“Deputies and dispatch contacted each other via phone because radio communication was terrible,” Ray wrote in her report.
After hearing the latest distressing news about the county’s VHF radio system that has caused heartburn for many first responders, dispatchers and other county officials, the County Commission declared a state of emergency at its 1 p.m. meeting Wednesday, Aug. 14, in order to seek immediate state assistance.
The emergency declaration said, in part, that under certain conditions, the “county-wide VHF radio system has experienced a complete failure. The failure applies to the City of Louisburg and the rural areas of Miami County which have resulted in no VHF communications… loss of communications may cause or eminently threaten to cause injury or loss of life to the citizens or first responders throughout Miami County.”
During the commission’s morning study session Aug. 14, Ray provided documentation of more than 70 calls this summer in which radio communications broke down. Most of the problems are occurring in Louisburg and rural areas, particularly in the eastern part of county, where Louisburg Police Chief Tim Bauer said coverage is inconsistent.
Ray played a handful of 911 calls for the commissioners. And the silence — often mixed with static—made it clear to everyone in the room the county’s antiquated VHF radio system is in dire straits.
“This is totally unacceptable,” Commissioner Rob Roberts said after hearing some of the 911 calls, one of which documented the Louisburg Fire Department’s difficulty receiving a dispatch about a reported structure fire where a wheelchair-bound person couldn’t get out of the home.
An outside company has been working with the county, but attempts since mid-May to use repeaters to boost the capability of the county’s tower system have proven unsuccessful. Chief Bauer said the repeaters have compounded the problem because they amplify the static coming over the radio.
County commissioners have already discussed plans to move to a state-of-the-art 800 megahertz system, and commissioned a study by Tusa Consulting Services in December 2018 that showed it would cost about $9 million to install a countywide 800 MHz system, with an estimated total cost of around $13 to 15 million when upgrades and maintenance costs were factored in over a 15-year period. Commissioners were encouraged to learn that Franklin County recently installed an 800 MHz system for about $5 million.
The conversion to 800 MHz cannot come soon enough, law enforcement and fire officials said. Miami County Emergency Medical Services and the Paola Fire Department have already made the conversion to 800 MHz.
Miami County commissioners spent portions of several meetings in 2018 discussing options for transitioning some departments from a very high frequency (VHF) radio system to a digital 800 MHz radio system. It’s a move several neighboring counties, including Franklin and Johnson, have already made.
Similar transitions are taking place all across the country as part of a nationwide shift to digital broadcasting, and the need was amplified a few years ago when the Federal Communications Commission mandated narrow banding of the VHF system to make more bandwidth available for other uses.
Ray said it’s not uncommon to send multiple departments to emergency calls because of a breakdown in radio communication.
“When you lose communication, you don’t know if the deputy is in trouble … so you have to dispatch multiple units,” Ray said.
Ray, Bauer, Sheriff Frank Kelly, Undersheriff Wayne Minckley, Bryce Thomas, technical operations officer with the sheriff’s office, Louisburg Fire Chief Gerald Rittinghouse, and other law enforcement officials met with county commissioners Wednesday morning.
Louisburg first responders have resorted to carrying mobile 800 MHz radios but coverage has been inconsistent because the only 800 MHz radio tower in the county is west of Paola.
Two hours after the county commission declared the emergency Wednesday afternoon, a state-owned mobile communications tower called COW (Communication on Wheels) was being hoisted at 3 p.m. in the parking lot behind the Louisburg EMS/Fire Station.
Statewide Interopera- bility Coordinator Jason Bryant with the office of emergency communications supervised the placement of the tower.
He said the COW would remain on site until officials could figure out another location where an 800 MHz antenna could be placed, possibly on the water tower a short distance away — as an interim solution until a permanent 800 MHz system could be built in the county.
First responders from several agencies were preparing to test their radios to ensure they would work with the mobile tower. Bryant vowed not to leave until he knew it was working.
“I’m not going have first responders left without the ability to communicate with each other,” Bryant said.
Thomas, with the sheriff’s office, was on hand with chiefs Bauer and Rittinghouse and other first responders to watch the tower being put up.
“It’s not a permanent fix, but it’s the best option we have at the moment,” Thomas said as he watched the mobile tower being made operational. “Every first responder deserves to have a radio that is 100 percent functional.”