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County volunteers dealing with spotty communication

The communication system utilized by the volunteer fire departments suffers from system dead spots that have emergency responders concerned about the safety of the community and themselves.
The antiquated system is especially problematic for firefighters volunteering at the Pine Grove, Crossroads and Henleyfield fire departments. Southeast Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mark McCormick said the system they are using now has been in use for the past 10 years, and was 10 years old when it was installed.
At times the firefighters have had to use cell phones to reach out for assistance when tanker trucks run low on water or other emergencies occur, said Fire District 1 Board of Commissioners member Jim Dischinger.
Volunteer firefighters respond to more than just fires. They also respond to medical emergencies and accidents.
“We’re a third set of hands that help AAA medical,” McCormick said.
To fix the problem volunteer agencies want to be added to the digital system installed by the state of Mississippi shortly after Hurricane Katrina, called the Mississippi Wireless Information Network. The 700 megahertz system is currently being used by the Pearl River County Sheriff’s Department via grant funded radios and the Mississippi Highway Patrol.
Last Thanksgiving departments in the southeast part of the county got a chance to test the digital system when their old system suffered an outage. Dischinger said the difference in the clarity and coverage was night and day. Because of that outage each department now conducts a daily radio check.
McCormick estimates the cost to jump onto the digital system to be about $400,000 for the radios and an additional $140,000 to cover two consoles that would be installed at the county dispatch in Millard.
All departments have a mutual aid agreement, meaning that during substantial emergencies departments from all over the county provide assistance. Carriere Volunteer Fire Chief Chris Banks used the Mississippi Mall fire of June 2009 as an example. If all departments were on a reliable system, receiving aid would be assured.
To pay for this upgrade, the volunteer fire agencies feel funds from the E-911 fund could be used. Those funds come from the payment of phone bills of landlines and cellphones. Each residential line pays one dollar per month, but the county has the option to charge commercial businesses an additional dollar.
District I Supervisor Anthony Hales said he was informed by the county administrator that those funds are already being used to maintain the equipment at the county dispatch and pay salaries in key areas. That means there are no extra funds to be used to upgrade the system. However Hales said the board is looking into the option of adding the additional dollar to commercial phone accounts, but must ensure the move is legal.
McCormick and some of the other volunteers question how the county is using those E-911 funds.
“We want to be sure it’s being spent correctly,” McCormick said. “They may have been paying dispatchers with it; they may have been buying dump trucks.”
Currently the board of supervisors is suggesting a $20,000 patch to the system, but the volunteer agencies feel more should be done to fix the problem, McCormick said.
No matter what happens, Hales said he and the board want to fix the problem, but it will take time to conduct the proper research in order to move in the right direction towards a solution.
“We need to know what we can legally do with the funds,” Hales said. “I’ll do my best in my efforts to support them.”