Officials say improving emergency communications would be costly

By Julie Fann
Star Staff

Even though Elizabethton is a small community situated far away from cities like Washington and New York, the county isn't necessarily immune to events like those that occurred on Sept. 11. Local police and emergency officials are working to improve communications, but they all agree that money is a determining factor.
   "We don't have 800 megahertz (megahertz means one million miles per second) capabilities like Johnson City and Sullivan County, etc. The cost for us to have 800 megahertz radioband would be around $750,000. It's extremely expensive. It's something we need to work toward, though, I think," said City Manager Charles Stahl.
   With current state and local budgets struggling just to meet operational expenses, preparing for a possible future terrorist attack or serious disaster tends to take a back burner to more pressing issues. The Carter County EMA recently received a $50,000 domestic preparedness grant, but those dollars weren't designated for improving communications.
   According to Fire Chief Mike Shouse, emergencies that occur locally generally don't present a problem. "Luckily here in the city, we're able to communicate extremely well with local volunteer fire departments. However, once you get away from any agency in the county area, we don't have that ability," he said.
   Shouse used as an example the fire at North American Corporation that occurred two years ago. "We had 78 pieces of fire apparatus and very limited communication abilities with the Sullivan and Washington County fire departments because they have 800 megahertz ability and we don't," he said.
   Shouse explained that problems arise because outside agencies use different systems. For instance, there are radio repeater tower sites located within the mountain region. A radio signal gets transmitted from a car to the tower and is then boosted out to other radios so that communication can occur. However, if systems aren't compatible with each other, radio signals are never received.
   "The biggest problem, then, is the cost to increase radio ability and obtaining Federal Communications Commission licensing so that we're all operating on the same channel," Shouse said.
   Terry Arnold, Carter County EMS Director, agrees that cost is the obstacle the city would need to tackle. "We have problems getting radio signals out when we're in Roan Mountain and Butler. Those towers get low reception, especially when we have a major problem. Improvements would be very expensive," he said.
   This spring, the Public Safety Wireless Network, a national group seeking to improve emergency communications, held a conference in Nashville sponsored by the Department of Justice and the Department of Treasury. Bill Pogue, chief of technology services for the Tennessee Department of Safety, said that a terrorist threat is more real; therefore, there is an increased need for improvements in communications.
   "We brought in the TVA since they have nuclear capabilities and needs. The technology we currently have is 40 years old. There is better technology now, but none that is a viable product for what we're looking at," Pogue said. Pogue heads up a Mobile Communications Alliance team made up of first responders whose goal is to establish standards and share assets so that local communities can upgrade technology and build a statewide system.
   "If we start looking at a user base in the state, if everyone shared cost, then local communities won't have to carry all the burden. We're still in the study phase though," Pogue said.