County awarded $250,000 CDBG grant to replace failing emergency communications system

EMA Director Jamie Miller addresses the Commission on Sept. 28

The problems plaguing Hawkins County’s failing emergency communications system may be nearing an end, as the County Commission ‘okayed’ a budget amendment at their September meeting that allots money for the $425,000 analogue replacement system.

In addition, the county received word on Oct. 5 that their application for the $250,000 emergency Community Development Block Grant was approved in full.

Back in July, the Commission’s Public Safety Committee voted to choose the quicker and less expensive analogue option to replace the failing emergency communications equipment that has been malfunctioning since November.

Emergency Management Agency Director Jamie Miller told the Commission on Sept. 28 that the current system is in worse condition now than when the failure first began.

At the Sept. 11 meeting, the committee voted to recommend to the full commission that the $425,000 project be paid for from the undesignated funds in the capital outlay line item of the budget.

The $425,000 project cost was approved 20-1 with Commissioner Donnie Talley casting the only “no” vote on Sept. 28. Now that the county has received the CDBG grant, the county will only have to pay $175,000 for the new system.

A complete, new radio system

Miller told the Commission on Sept. 28 that, for $425,000, the county will receive “a complete radio system from the antenna to the wall where the devices will plug in” at all three tower locations: Bays Mountain, Town Knob and Short Mountain.

“It will be a similar system to what we have now,” Miller added. “There’s been a lot of weakness identified in the system we have now, but this is the system the Public Safety Committee is pushing for.”

Miller also told the committee that the current system has recently been experiencing additional problems “to the point that you can visibly see the tower and not be able to [communicate].”

“There’s a lot of questions about coverage from one end of the county to the other,” Miller added. “Coverage and connectivity are two different things and have been addressed to Public Safety (Committee), and they feel like this is the best solution, most feasible, most economic. Is this a $10 million system? Absolutely not. But they (the committee) feel it will fulfill those needs.”

“I don’t always feel that the cheapest is the best,” Commissioner Hannah Speaks told Miller. “You do feel that this [system] will fix our problem in the county?”

“I feel it will greatly improve it,” Miller said. “From where we’re at now, even if we went with a more expensive system, we’d have to do this to get us by until that system could be built. Just to implement that (the previously discussed multimillion-dollar digital TACN system) would take years.”

Commissioner Donnie Talley said he fears the county will pay $425,000 (before the grant) for a new system and, eventually, be right back in the same situation they are currently facing.

“I disagree with that—the point we’re at now is near failure,” Miller replied. “When you’re at a point that you are looking at the tower and can’t get into it, coverage gets no worse.”

He then cited a specific spot in Talley’s district (seven) on Hwy 113 where Miller has been close enough to a tower to see it and was still unable to communicate on his radio.

Miller also added in a statement released after the Commission’s Sept. 28 voted that “the full replacement of the equipment on the three current radio sites should increase coverage drastically.”

After the new system is installed, the coverage will be assessed throughout the county to determine if an additional radio site is needed in the north end of the county, near Clinch Mountain. This area has traditionally had poor radio communication and many ‘dead’ spots.

Miller also noted that he has already been approached by several Clinch residents who are willing to donate land for the new site.

However, he said that the new radio site project will wait until the new system is online.

Timeline for completion

Commissioner Keith Gibson asked Miller how long it would take for the newly installed system to be operational.

“It will be hard to give an exact estimate due to COVID,” Miller replied. “I’ve had vendors tell me anywhere from like a four-month estimate, but that was prior to COVID. This will be a bid project, and that will also add some delay. [The vendor] said typically it would be less than that [four months] but all electronics are shipping issues at the moment. I don’t imagine this will be any different.”

Miller also added that the estimated four-month completion date did not include the time it would take to bid out the project.

$250,000 grant approved

Hawkins Co. Mayor Jim Lee received the letter of approval for the CDBG grant on Monday evening.

“As you know, CDBG funds cannot be released until a contract between the state and your community has been executed and contract conditions have been satisfied,” the letter specifies. “Activities which you may begin to work on with receipt of this letter are the environmental review, administration and engineering design.”

The letter also contained a schedule detailing when the environmental review records are due.

The first of several deadlines the Mayor’s office must fulfill is Oct. 16.

Background

Hawkins County’s emergency radio system, which dispatches police, fire and rescue agencies, failed one time in each of three consecutive months last November, December and January.

This has been a hot topic of conversation in county commission and public safety meetings since last winter, and numerous first responders have noted that there are currently large dead zones throughout the county, particularly in the Clinch Mountain and Beech Creek areas.

“The public safety radio system failed in the microwave connectivity system in December of 2019, and since that time, numerous other performance issues have developed on the RF side of the radio system, which is a completely different issue,” Miller said following the Sept. 28 meeting. “Multiple vendors have confirmed that the power output loss is contributed to the current antenna system, a combiner and install issues.”

He added, “My office has dedicated hundreds of hours of research to this project to present the pros and cons of each potential new radio system accurately… my office will assist in building the best radio system possible within the budget [passed by the commission].”