Public safety officials push for new radio system

Richmond County sheriff’s Lt. Lewis Blanchard brought the issue to the attention of the Augusta Commission, urging it to redirect the more than $600,000 it spends renting airspace from the South Carolina-based Palmetto 800 system and put it toward a lease-to-own program that would strengthen communications for county departments.

After a February ice storm left deputies and firefighters without radio communications for extended periods, Richmond County public safety officials say they have a renewed interest in purchasing their own radio system.

Last month, Richmond County sheriff’s Lt. Lewis Blanchard brought the issue to the attention of the Augusta Commission, urging it to redirect the more than $600,000 it spends renting airspace from the South Carolina-based Palmetto 800 system and put it toward a lease-to-own program that would strengthen communications for county departments.

The 800 megahertz network used by the city is supported by 79 transmitter sites across South Carolina and Georgia, but it provides spotty coverage in south Augusta and in large structures, including hospitals, Blanchard said.

The need for such a system has already been confirmed by the city’s public safety committee, Blanchard said.

Sheriff Richard Roundtree had pledged to dedicate $13 million generated from SPLOST 7 to the Information Technology Department to purchase its own system. When the SPLOST referendum failed in May, talks cooled. However, Blanchard said he doesn’t believe the city should wait for another SPLOST package to move forward.

“If we acknowledge that we need it from every department, from every division and IT confirms it, then, in our opinion, waiting until it’s funded through SPLOST doesn’t make sense,” he said. “If we can get SPLOST two years from now, that’s great. SPLOST money will pay it off.”

Augusta Fire Chief Chris James said a system within the city’s jurisdiction would cut down on interference caused by trees because of the distance from the towers in South Carolina.

He said his department is contemplating how to go about purchasing a taller antenna for Station No. 15 on Flowing Wells Road, which is plagued with communication problems because of the growth of foliage in the area. A taller antenna could cost as much as $22,000.

“If we had our own system with closer towers in our jurisdiction, you wouldn’t have to make those adjustments as much,” he said.

By bringing a system in-house, James said, the city could improve its Insurance Services Office rating, which could help lower insurance premiums in the area. One criteria in the rating calls for a indicator to be placed in the 911 Call Center to alert officials of outages. During the last rating cycle, city officials were unable to convince Palmetto 800 to introduce an indicator into the call center.

“Right now, those are ISO points that we’re missing out on because we don’t have our own system,” James said.

The indicator might have come in handy during the ice storm, which forced deputies and firefighters to explore other means when attempting to communicate, including using cellphones. Their counterparts in Columbia County, which operate on their own system, never lost a signal.

James said such situations pose a threat to the safety of firefighters and impede the flow of resources.

“The folks down south may be able to communicate with each other because they’re in the same vicinity, but the long-distance communication is interrupted,” he said. “With dispatch being downtown and the call for service being in south Au­gus­ta, there’s just no communication.”

During the Aug. 19 commission meeting, interim Ad­min­istrator and IT Direc­tor Tame­ka Allen said that while she agrees the need is there, commissioners needn’t rush to purchase the new system.

“I don’t want the commission leaving today feeling like we don’t have a good deal with what we currently have,” she said.

Blanchard said he remains positive.

“The new system will not give a 100 percent guarantee that it will solve all of our problems, but it certainly increases efficiency drastically compared to where we are now,” he said.

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