AIKEN - Communication between emergency responders is vital during a disaster, but it could become increasingly difficult in Aiken County.
The VHF radio system used by emergency personnel is becoming obsolete, said Phil Clarke, the county's emergency medical services coordinator.
In addition, he said, it is incompatible with the statewide Palmetto 800 system, an 800-megahertz system the Aiken County Sheriff's Office and the coroner's office use.
"The system we have here could last for a while, or it could go out any time," Mr. Clarke said.
However, there are a couple of certainties associated with the VHF system.
Parts of the 7-year-old system have broken down and been repaired within the past year, said Mr. Clarke, and the manufacturer has notified the county that some equipment is no longer available.
"It's just a matter of waiting until we have a problem, and it can't be replaced," he said.
Mr. Clarke said Aiken County has two options for replacing the VHF system. The county could buy a new VHF radio system for more than $1 million, or it could purchase an 800-megahertz system for about $300,000.
"Getting a better radio system is going to improve our ability to respond to the calls because dispatch is going to be able to communicate with the crews, and vice versa, to give them the vital information they need in order to tend to the patient," he said.
County Administrator Clay Killian said funds to replace the system weren't allocated in this year's budget.
"We do have emergency purchasing procedures, but we don't like to utilize those," he said.
Mr. Killian also said the county was exploring the possibility of leasing updated radio equipment.
Councilman Eddie Butler said the county is committed to improving its emergency medical services.
"The only thing worse than having an ambulance and no driver is having an ambulance and a driver and no communication," he said.
After the train wreck and chlorine spill in Graniteville two years ago, Mr. Clarke said, emergency personnel had to go through the dispatch center at the sheriff's office to communicate with other local agencies.
"We couldn't communicate with other agencies that were coming in," he said. "When the Aiken County Sheriff's Office called for additional help, those agencies that responded were on the 800 system."
In addition, Mr. Clarke said, the entire EMS communication system was knocked out once within the past two years when a tower behind the sheriff's office took a direct hit from lightning.
At that time, Mr. Clarke said, emergency personnel relied on ham radio operators to help them communicate.
The lightning strike did not affect the 800-megahertz system, sheriff's Capt. Bobby Wilson said.
Sheriff Mike Hunt also is a proponent of updating the county's radio communications system for emergency personnel.
"This system is going to fail. It's old. It's outdated. We're not going to be able to talk to ambulances," he recently told the county council judicial and public safety committee.
During a major incident, he said, his office can communicate with emergency personnel in other parts of the state, including Charleston, Columbia and Greenville, but not in Aiken.
"Eventually, you will have to have all your emergency services in this county on the 800 system if you want to keep up with the times," Sheriff Hunt said.
Reach Betsy Gilliland at (803) 648-1395, ext. 113, or firstname.lastname@example.org.