Dirk Burnside, secretary of the Enhanced Emergency Telephone Advisory Board, attends the Feb. 9 Upshur County Commission meeting. / Photos by Monica Zalaznik

County votes to acquire radio licensing for Ultra High Frequencies for on-scene emergency communications

BUCKHANNON – The Upshur County Commission has voted to acquire radio licensing to provide Ultra High Frequencies for on-scene communications during emergency incidents.

Dirk Burnside, secretary of the Enhanced Emergency Telephone Advisory Board, attended the Feb. 9 Upshur County Commission meeting to recommend the acquisition. Burnside said EETAB had met and unanimously approved recommending that the commission acquire radio licensing for Ultra High Frequencies. He said the Statewide Interoperable Radio Network, or SIRN, is not designed for portable, on-scene, unit-to-unit communications.

“The committees have, for many years, recommended the implementation of the local jurisdictions [acquiring] licensing frequencies on the UHF band that facilitate those local communications, realizing the Statewide (Interoperable Radio) Network is not designed for portable use,” Burnside said. “Upshur County has no frequencies available to do what we want on the UHF band. The sheriff’s department, the city police and the Buckhannon Fire Department use the statewide network, so what EETAB is recommending is for the Commission to approve our request to add UHF simplex, low power frequencies to one of the licenses that Upshur County holds.”

Simplex radio communications are also referred to as direct radio communications for on-scene radio traffic. Adding these licenses would allow first responder agencies such as fire departments and police departments to have a direct radio connection to a responding vehicle, rather than transmitting to a tower.

“One of the diagrams shows a firefighter in the basement of a building and if they’re using the statewide network, they would have to transmit … 17 miles to the repeater, and then 17 miles back to the fire truck sitting on the outside of the building, which may not be able to happen because of the distance involved from that little 5-watt or 4-watt radio up to that tower as opposed to this diagram where that same firefighter in the basement of that building is talking directly to the fire truck 300 feet away,” Burnside said.

Burnside said it would cost a one-time fee of $2,000 to acquire the new frequencies. Steve Wykoff, director of the Upshur County Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, said he had concerns about not having communications go through the E911 Upshur County Communication Center.

“I’m not well-versed enough on the radio frequencies to be able to offer that information; however, I do have concerns from a safety standpoint,” Wykoff said. “This is going to be line of sight between the radios on the scene and the trucks on the scene which means Comm Center will not be able to hear the traffic and it would not be recorded in the event of an emergency.”

Burnside confirmed that Comm Center would not be able to hear the traffic when these frequencies are in use.

“I know several years ago they had a situation at Audra State Park where Barbour County responded and Upshur County responded, but they had a little bit of trouble getting it back into the statewide network,” Burnside said. “With one of these frequencies, they could still talk amongst themselves, so we’re not telling anybody to do anything; we just want the frequencies there in case it’s needed to be used.”

Capt. Joey Baxa with the Buckhannon Fire Department also expressed concern about circumventing the state system.

“You brought up a firefighter being stuck in a building, but have you ever been in that situation?” Baxa asked. “I have, and the statewide system helped get me out; it went to a tower 10 miles away and made its way back and I’m here today because of that.”

Local firefighters attend the Feb. 9 Upshur County Commission meeting to discuss concerns about radio communications.

Chief JB Kimble with the Buckhannon Fire Department said 75 percent of maydays across the country are heard by dispatch, not the incident commander.

“Through our research, the majority of major incidents of people getting hurt or trapped are caught by the dispatch center,” Kimble said. “Often, the incident commander can’t hear it because of the noise and everything going on.”

Upshur County Commissioner Sam Nolte said he didn’t think the fire department would have to use the new frequencies.

“What I was gathering from the presentation was this was just wanting to add another tool in the toolbox, not saying that you guys have to use it –it’s also not just for fire but also EMS,” Nolte said.

Baxa said he’s not against a new tool, but he doesn’t think it should be geared specifically for a situation involving a fire.

“I’m not against having the tool in the toolbox, but if we’re going to continue to pinpoint fires, I’m 100 percent against it and I will fight it tooth-and-nail because it doesn’t fit for fires,” Baxa said. “Have we done an audit as to the unnecessary traffic on the system? Have we trained the users of proper radio etiquette? I’ve been asking that for years. It’s not been done, and I’m all for this solution if it’s implemented properly.”

Kimble said he didn’t think this request went through the proper channels.

“I feel this should have been handled a little differently,” Kimble said. “It should have come from the representative from EETAB to groups like fire associations and police departments to say, ‘hey, this is what we’re thinking,’ not to have a meeting three weeks ago and then have it on the commission agenda. I think there should be better communication.”

Baxa said he didn’t think the new frequencies should be used before all the different departments could discuss how they would be utilized.  

“If we’re going to do other frequencies, which probably has some utilization, then we also need to have a workgroup to work on how this is going to be implemented,” Baxa said. “I don’t think the conversations being had right now are including the people that have the tactical knowledge and the strategic knowledge to know when it can be properly used and when it can’t.”

Nolte made a motion to approve the request.

“I feel like there’s no harm in the new frequencies,” Nolte said. “I don’t think there’s any harm, so I would like to make a motion to approve the request and then I do feel there need to be additional conversations about continued usage.”

Commissioner Doug Bush seconded Nolte’s motion, which passed unanimously.

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