Facing a rapidly aging radio system, and the culmination of more than six months of conversation, Campbell County supervisors heard options for the future of the public safety radio system in a packed meeting room of law enforcement, firefighters, emergency service crews and representatives from most branches of Campbell County public safety this week.
On Tuesday night, the Campbell County Board of Supervisors heard a presentation from Cheryl Giggetts, principal consultant with CTA Consultants, a public safety consulting firm investing in public safety training and STEM Education.
With every folding chair filled, and more dragged in from the hall, the meeting stretched past 10 p.m. as supervisors discussed the fate of the Campbell County radio system.
Public Safety Director Tracy Fairchild said they need to take action as soon as possible.
She referenced two recent failures of the radio system — instances that would be avoided by joining a regional radio system.
While pursuing a suspect down U.S. 460, a Campbell County deputy working alongside Lynchburg law enforcement and Virginia State Police was not informed when the state police threw down spike strips. The county lost four tires when the deputy drove over the spikes, Fairchild said.
Even more extreme, she said, during a pursuit in woods off of Candlers Mountain Road, Campbell County deputies and EMS were not informed that the suspect had started shooting and ran in to help.
“Had we been able to talk to every agency that was there, everyone would have known what was going on prior to this, and [taken] a safer approach,” Fairchild said. “Every single day that I walk in that office, my goal is for everyone to go home. And at this point, for 26 years, I can tell you my biggest stress is our radio system.”
Currently, the county faces a multimillion-dollar decision: to remain a standalone public safety radio system, or to join The Central Virginia Radio Communications Board — a regional radio board consisting of the counties of Amherst and Bedford, the town of Bedford and the city of Lynchburg, formed in 1996 to ensure public safety communication throughout jurisdictions.
Campbell County issued a request for proposals for standalone options several months ago, and Giggetts ran the board through the three proposals the county received.
As it stands, the county’s radio system bounces off of five towers using VHF — “very high frequency” radio waves — and was installed more than 15 years ago.
It serves about 389 users, including career fire departments and emergency services crews, eight volunteer fire departments, three volunteer rescue squads and animal control.
Fairchild said the bulk of the system is from 1996, with minor updates done in 2003 and the addition of the Altavista tower site completed in 2015.
The system has coverage issues in the most populated areas of the county, like Timberlake, and struggles with in-building coverage. They also face radio interference, lack of reliable interoperability with surrounding counties and no reliable contracted maintenance assistance. When something goes down, the county does not have a maintenance team able to immediately respond to more complex technological failures.
Though the current system is working, the looming issues mean steps need to be taken as time further strains the system.
For all options, it will take 18 to 24 months to implement a new system.
The standalone proposals were submitted by Bearcom, a Texas- based telecommunications equipment supplier, and L3Harris, an American technology company, defense contractor and information technology services provider, with L3Harris submitting two different proposals — a base system design and an enhanced coverage design. The overall price tag on the projects to create a new standalone system for the county ranged from $6 million to $9 million.
Most offered mobile service area coverage of up to 95%, with portable service area coverage of 90%.
Though the bulk of the presentation focused on the three standalone projects — as county staff stressed the importance of considering all options — the majority of public safety attendees rallied behind the regional option, one they said would guarantee better coverage, easy communication with neighboring localities and a support staff already assigned to those using regional equipment.
“The regional system is what comes to bear when you are looking to operate outside the geographic footprint of your radio system,” Giggetts said.
Fairchild emphasized the importance of widening their radio footprint. She said they have issues talking to medic units in the hospital, and are forced to rely heavily on cellphones — especially when responding to calls outside of the county lines.
L3Harris also had submitted an “alternate proposal” that outlines the cost of joining the regional system. The price tag for the regional option was about $4.5 million, which included costs for warranty and maintenance for the first six years of the system.
County Administrator Frank Rogers said that price tag does not include the initial buy-in fee for the county, which is estimated to be around $1.6 million.
Rogers said, per the board’s direction, county staff will be engaging with the regional radio board to clarify what, if any, other costs are associated with membership.
A memorandum presented by the county in May estimated about $175,000 for the annual operations fee. This annual fee is set based upon the annual budget of the Radio Board and Campbell’s percentage of radios operating on the system.
Costs associated with the buy-in to the regional board also are subject to negotiation.
By joining the regional system, Campbell County would get a seat at the table alongside other members — such as the city of Lynchburg, Bedford and Amherst counties, the town of Bedford, Liberty University, Central Virginia Community College, the Lynchburg Regional Airport and the University of Lynchburg — along with improvements in interoperability and utilization of regional maintenance contracts and extended coverage.
Campbell County Sheriff Whit Clark spoke in support of joining the regional system at Tuesday’s meeting. Clark said he had experience with the system during his 32 years serving with the Lynchburg Police Department and said it was “a really good system.”
Keith Johnson, who served as a fire chief at Lyn-Dan Heights Volunteer Fire Department and retired as a battalion chief in the city of Lynchburg, said he has been a part of public safety in the area for more than 39 years. In Lynchburg public safety, he has been able to step across the “line” between counties and call for help. Standing in nearly the same spot the next day in his capacity as fire chief in Campbell County, he couldn’t radio for help for people trapped in a car.
“I know what it’s like to be at a house fire with firefighters inside and I can’t get any help because the radios aren’t working,” Johnson said. “We’ve been part of an inferior radio system for a long time now.”
He pleaded with Campbell supervisors to consider the regional system with an open mind.
“That regional system has been working for 20 years. I’ve used both,” Johnson said. While standalone systems may work, he said he doesn’t know if they will ever work as good as the existing regional system. “There are about 13 sites that will pour signals right down on our public safety folks, making these emergencies go away.”
Concord District Supervisor Matt Cline said he was ready to head toward the regional approach. Having spent time interviewing firefighters and first responders in his district, Cline said they were all “very much behind” the regional system.
Rustburg District Supervisor Jon Hardie said he would like to take more time to determine that the regional system will be “fair and equal.”
“I don’t want to be in a situation where other people are going to dictate our future,” Hardie said. “We need the best, there is no question of that, but we always need to dictate what is best for Campbell County.”
Supervisors chose not to take action Tuesday night, instead directing staff to move forward and gather more information on the regional system to be discussed at a future meeting.
Sarah Honosky covers Appomattox and Campbell counties at The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5556.