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EMA Director offers update on County Communication Systems

Edgefield County EMA Director

web posted April 3, 2008
After reading the guest editorial by Bob Ramsey (Edgefield County Process For FY 08-09) I feel compelled to respond. In reference to certain parts of his editorial I find that Mr. Ramsey has in some instances misstated the situation. As Emergency Preparedness Director for Edgefield County I find this inaccuracy alarming. Not only does it misrepresent the true situation but such mishandling of facts only serves to confuse and in some cases unnecessarily alarm the citizens of our county. 
My concern is for Mr. Ramsey's remarks regarding the present state of our emergency communications system. Let me address those remarks as an outtake of the total editorial and respond to them individually.
Mr. Ramsey refers to our emergency communications system as aging and antiquated.  He contends that both of our communications towers "are on their last legs." I cannot totally agree with this assessment. At this writing we are aggressively replacing outdated and antiquated equipment but I believe the system concept is valid and far from being outdated. We work off a two tower system for several good reasons; we have redundancy if one of the sites should fail, we have better coverage of the entire county and we increase our communications capability with neighboring counties. 

In reality only one of our two towers has had structural problems. The problem was brought to council's attention and they immediately and unanimously voted to fix the problem. The tower has been repaired. Council also gave me the authority to seek specifications on a new tower. They told me in no uncertain terms that this was a top priority. All of this conversation was in open session of council. 

Another area of concern that I presented to council was the aging two-way fire radio.   Again when I called it to council's attention they immediately instructed me to purchase a new system. We replaced the EMS system approximately five years ago and the Sheriff's Office is replacing its system at present. All emergency services have new or nearly new radio repeaters. 

Mr. Ramsey states that grants are hard to come by. Yes and no. I have four grants that specifically address tower replacement and radio systems. All of the repairs and new radio systems already installed were funded in total or in part by grants that were secured by my office.

As a matter of fact we had sufficient grant money to buy new backup repeater radios for both tower sites should the main unit fail or be down for service. Council has made it clear that they want a new system and have earmarked matching funds for grants that we are securing. I have also been given complete authority by council to upgrade the communications buildings at both sites and secure maintenance contracts for radio service and emergency generator service. Council's words to me were "do what it takes to get us back up to where we should be." 
Mr. Ramsey alludes to 800 Megahertz as the new salvation of communications and that we should be going to that system so that we can more readily secure grants.  Let's take a look at that scenario:

First, the great majority of counties in South Carolina still use the same system that we use; VHF and UHF conventional frequencies. This is not an antiquated system, but like anything else it requires new equipment from time to time. Larger counties, with big budgets, have begun phasing in 800 trunking. This is an expensive proposition and one that we should carefully consider. With 800 we would have to pay a monthly subscription (usage) fee for EACH 800 radio in the county. To properly equip the seven fire departments, EMA, EMS, and City and County law enforcement we would conservatively have to buy at least 225 to 250 radios at a cost of $2500-$3000 each.  Conventional VHF and UHF radios run $350 to $600 each.

Each of the radios would also require a monthly subscription fee of approximately $25.00 depending on the number of trunking towers we would have to subscribe to for adequate coverage. You do the math. This usage fee never goes away and would have to be budgeted every year. 

Once the 800 system was in place we would still have to use our present system for toning our fire departments and EMS and other daily radio traffic. Our present system cost us a fraction of what 800 would cost. Yes, there are grants that would help fund a portion of this cost but they are matching grants and the county would still have to spend a great deal of money. I feel our money is better spent at present on upgrading towers and present radio systems.

One of the big buzz words with Homeland Security is Interoperability. At present our system has complete interoperability with all neighboring counties. Not so with 800. 

Finally on this matter, let me share with you the fact that we already have 800 trunking radios in our county now and have been phasing them in for several years. County and City law enforcement, EMA and EMS all have mobiles and base units. All provided by the 800 trunking company thru grants so that we could begin the gradual migration to 800 in the future. They are used on a very limited basis. My office is also working on grant opportunities to equip our seven fire departments with 800 as backup to their present system as well as HAM Radio and 2 Meter.  

So, yes, there are grant sources for conventional radio systems, FEMA would just like to see us include 800 in our plans as we update. This we are doing as part of our long range plan.
Let me assure the citizens of Edgefield County that we are working hard to improve our communications systems whenever possible.  I will always place communications as one of our top priorities. My office works almost daily on grant opportunities and we have the services of the U.S. Department of Agriculture grant writing team and Upper Savannah Council of Governments whenever needed. 

Let me close with a personal observation; had Mr. Ramsey contacted me regarding this matter before writing his editorial I believe I could have cleared up some of the misconceptions and erroneous information. Mr. Ramsey is truly concerned about our county and I welcome his input at any time. He is a good citizen and I list him as a friend. I trust that nothing I have said in any way conveys any ill will or misplaced trust toward Mr. Ramsey.
Mike Casey
Edgefield County EMA Director

Editor's note: Mr. Casey's column was placed in the Opinions Section to make it available where Mr. Ramsey's editorial was placed for convenience to the reader.


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