ASHE COUNTY-On Oct. 21, 2016, the unthinkable become a reality for emergency personnel and firefighters countywide.
The communication system that links these vital players together temporarily collapsed due to technical difficulties.
The airwaves were virtually silent and county law enforcement, fire fighters and paramedics found themselves in an extremely vulnerable and unnerving situation.
Absent of any cop jargon and rescue calls, the channel was simply filled a shrilling void.
“When that happened it wasn’t just a simple blank, all the channels had this screaming loud noise,” said Phil Howell, director of communications at the sheriff’s office. “I don’t know how to describe it. It was going all over channels.”
After relaying a series of frantic messages to their vendor, communications were eventually restored later that evening, but not after eight hours had passed. An ethernet cable was strung between buildings as a stopgap measure until a master technician arrived on the scene that following Monday.
Currently, the county’s 911 dispatch and communications system is comprised of two components: VHF and Viper.
“We got lucky that the sheriff’s office and medics had a Viper channel,” said Howell. “But we had no way to dispatch any fire department. We were blessed. We didn’t get a single brush or house fire that day. We were extremely lucky.”
For those eight hours, the county was at the mercy of Mother Nature and acts of God. Even a small spark could’ve resulted in catastrophic blaze if there was any delay in notifying firefighters. Volunteers countywide shudder at the thought of the same system failing weeks later during the infamous Three-Mile Fire on Mulatto Mountain.
Creston Fire Chief Junior Seatz echoed Howell’s fears and expressed his frustration with an aging and outdated system.
“Our radio communications are pitiful at times,” said Seatz. “We had a vehicle fatality on Sudderland Road on the county line and couldn’t talk to either agency to do any good. When the radios went down we were helpless. It was like having our legs and arms cut off.”
Pond Mountain Firefighter Lee Denny has also previously asked the county to consider funding upgrades to the county’s dispatch system, which is quickly becoming obsolete.
The rising and falling topography of the land creates natural barriers for radio waves has exarcebated the strains of an aging system.
“We’ve had several issues of trying to communicate between us and the county and us and the department,” said Denny. “A lot of places we will just hear a rumble or a roar and you just hope you’re getting through. We also have a lot of trouble getting dispatch.”
Rob Blevins, of the Ashe County Rescue Squad, recalls a particular time when all available communication options failed and a critical situation flirted with complete disaster.
“There was a lady who had a hay bale roll over and crushed her pelvis,” Blevins recalled. “There was no communication with the county whatsoever on the scene. Even a cell phone wouldn’t get out. We needed helicopter and needed it right then. Two medics stayed with her and I hiked to the top of the hill. We did make it and were able to call for a helicopter. It could’ve turned out a lot worse. We were very fortunate.”
To help lessen the burden on county first responders, commissioners have given permission to the county’s office of emergency management to begin the process of negotiations with land owners for a new communications tower for the northwest corner of the county. This would improve coverage for the entire area. Emergency management officials have previously stated that funding has become available from the state to help with the construction of the tower.
“Communications are a tremendous importance without a doubt,” said Commissioner William Sands. “Not only four firefighters, rescue people and especially, I think about law enforcement. I know how helpless you can feel if you are out here and can’t talk to someone. I know it’s been a concern here for years.”
Reach Jesse Campbell at (336) 846-7164.
Firefighters countywide will benefit from upgrades to the county’s 911 dispatch system.