Accompanied by other volunteer fire chiefs, Early Fire Chief Chad Hill asked county commissioners Monday to buy new portable and mobile radios to improve firefighters’ ability to communicate — a "huge safety factor," Hill said.
Hill, who is also a Brownwood firefighter, asked for 128 dual-band portable radios to be divided among the county’s 10 volunteer departments, and 57 mobile single band radios, at a total cost of $674,000. The current communications system the volunteers operate gives about 60 percent coverage of the county, and the new radios would increase that coverage to 99.3 percent, Hill said.
He said the new radios would be part of a proposed 700 megahertz radio and dispatch system to be shared by the county and the cities of Brownwood, Early and Bangs.
In a workshop last week, commissioners tentatively agreed to buy four portable radios per department and one mobile radio per truck at a total cost of $378,927.
Hill asked commissioners to consider approving a tax note to pay for the number of radios the departments are asking for.
Brown County Judge Paul Lilly said a tax note is a possibility.
"It hurts, but our volunteer firemen are worth it," Lilly said. "They should have a radio just like every deputy does. I understand the fiscal cost of it. If we had to fund it just out of our budget, there’s just no way we could do it. But using the tax note is something we can consider, certainly."
Hill said he knows it’s "a lot of money. To do our job and operate efficiently and safely, it’s what we need."
Hiss said the current VHF (Very High Frequency) system is outdated. The VHF system "gets interference a lot," Hill said. "So when you’re on scenes, if dispatch keys up on the sheriff’s office, you’re going to miss valuable information. If you have a mayday situation going on in a house, you’ve probably just missed that.
"The coverage is not there. It’s outdated."
Hill said he fears the shortcomings of the current system will result in a fatality.
"When you can talk portable to portable from the north end to the south end of the county with 99 percent coverage, it’s the only way to go," Hill said of receiving new radios.
"Every day these fire chiefs of Brown County are putting their lives and their people on the line. It’s their job to bring their people home safe to their families. Minutes and seconds count."
Hill said every department in the county has had communication failures with the current system.
"We’re just asking them to go ahead and upgrade, buy what we need to get everybody to safely and efficiently do their jobs, while we’re protecting and helping the taxpayers," Hill said.
The new radios will carry a service fee of $17 a month per radio to keep them maintained and upgraded, commissioners were told.
"Right now, if I’m running an incident at United Grocery, if I’m incident commander, I can’t communicate with my people inside United," Hill said. "If you get out in the county it really goes to pot."
Brownwood Fire Chief Erick Hicks addressed commissioners, saying the past month, with numerous large grass fires, has shown the new system is needed.
"That’s what this system is for — it’s for the protection of the residents of Brown County," Hicks told commissioners. "The city of Brownwood, the city of Early, we’re going with this system for that reason. The citizens of Brown County deserve the same. What you committed to last week in your budget hearing was $378,927. You’re almost there."
May volunteer firefighter Bo Allen told commissioners, "we’re all on the same team. I’m urging you to take the biggest steps you possibly can to make this happen. What we’re asking is, let’s move on to the 21st Century."
Lilly said later Monday via email:
"The costs of the radios will not be paid from the 2020-’21 budget, which by the way is balanced.
"The radios are pretty much mandatory for us as the county and the entire dispatch center is switching to the 700 series. They do provide coverage at about a 98 percent as opposed to the 60 percent at best we get with the present VHF system. We will have to pay for the radios through certificate of obligations or tax notes. That has yet to be decided, as has the total number if radios we can afford to provide the firefighters.
"We want to give them everything that we can afford to give them and we cherish their safety at all times. In my eyes every firefighter, paid or volunteer, should be equipped with a radio so that they can call for assistance and aid with logistics at an emergency scene. Paying for them however is the issue, but I am confident we will work it out."