Curry County Sheriff John Ward told county commissioners last week he had no idea when the aging microwave systems relaying radio messages between dispatch and deputies might fail again

“A snowstorm could take it out this year,” Ward told commissioners last Wednesday. “Or it could last another 10 to 15 years. I don’t know.”

He found out. Four days later — last Saturday — the microwave dish they’d just installed on the Bosley Butte tower not only failed, it fell off the pole.

It wasn’t even windy.

Today (Jan. 16), Ward plans to ask the county to declare the situation an emergency and spend an estimated $650,000 to replace the antiquated system.

Failing for years

Ward has been telling county commissioners for years the entire system needs to be replaced before something dire happens to one of his deputies or a member of the public.

The latest failure occurred in December, on the Black Mound site near Brookings.

“In December, south county had no coverage,” Ward said. “We were working off cell phones. I was trying to send two deputies (to calls) when I don’t have two deputies to send.”

Some communication was able to be done using Brookings’ system but it has a limited reach and doesn’t extend into some of the far corners of unincorporated Curry County, Ward explained.

And he doesn’t dare send a deputy alone to do anything other than deliver civil papers.

“I’ve told all my deputies: if they don’t have any communication, to phone in, contact us for a cover unit,” Ward said. “It doesn’t matter what kind of call it is, I want them to double up — even if I have to call someone off-duty to go with them. In this day and age, you never know what you’re going to run into; the... simplest thing can turn dangerous in an instant.”

Long-time need

Then-county administrator Clark Schroeder — his last day was Jan. 9 — echoed Ward’s concerns that day.

“All the money we’re putting into this is wasted money,” he said. “Parts are obsolete, parts are old; we’re piecing things together with eBay and used parts and other counties’ decommissioned parts. At some point, we need to commit to replace (the equipment).”

Curry County owns seven towers, and the three in the south end of the county — Grizzly Peak in Gold Beach, Bosley Butte east of Carpenterville, and Black Mound north of the Brookings Airport — are where the problems are, Ward said.

In December, Ward thought he’d caught a lucky break. He learned there was a microwave dish — still in its crate — in the county road offices.

“It’s been at the road department the whole time,” he said. “It was bought when Mike Brace was the emergency services coordinator more than 10 years ago — and we’ve had three or four since. Then there was a couple changes in roadmasters; it went from one to one, and pretty soon, it’s stuck back there in a crate. Nobody knew what it was and where it came from.”

Ward learned of its existence when he called Brace, who told Ward he’d purchased it years ago. Ward then asked around the road department and found it.

Ward sounded pretty excited in December when he told commissioners about the new find. But it ended up the crate only contained the microwave dish.

He had it installed on the Bosley Butte tower, using parts from the Black Mound site to do so.

But last weekend, something failed and the microwave dish fell to the ground.

The plan now is to rob Black Mound of more parts needed to repair the Bosley Butte dish — that should take place this week — and completely repair the Black Mound site sometimes in the next three weeks.

“There’ll be some communication,” Ward said Monday. “It won’t be the best, but at least there will be some.”

It still doesn’t negate the underlying issue of the failing system, he added.

“The county needs to replace these systems before we have no communications at all,” Ward said. “We need a system that won’t fail. We can’t afford to be shut down with no communication even for a day.”

Ward suggested the county use Road Capital Improvement Reserve Funds to replace the system.

Legislation approved in 2012 allows Curry County to use its road funds for sheriff’s deputy patrol expenses. That was later expanded to include expenditures “related” to patrols, such as 911 emergency dispatching systems.

“In my opinion, we’re in an emergency situation,” Ward said. “We have no communications with deputies in south county. We can’t get ahold of them. It’s dangerous.”