Can you hear me now?
Curry County commissioners plan to find and spend the money it will take to replace its failing communications system that enable emergency responders to talk to each other.
The board declared the action an emergency Wednesday due to the repeated failures in the microwave components of the systems on the towers at the south end of the county.
But until work can be done, emergency providers in South County — ambulances, fire, Oregon State Police and others — won’t be able to communicate via radio for the next four months.
“They’re going to try to do a workaround … to allow dispatch and a deputy to contact back and forth,” said Sheriff John Ward of the interim fix. “Others won’t be able to hear. But we’ll have some contact.”
Ward has warned commissioners for years that the equipment needed to be replaced.
“I’m pretty happy we got an agreement that they want to declare this an emergency — which it is,” the sheriff said. “It’s absolutely an emergency. We’ve been talking about replacing this for several years; it takes a catastrophe like this.”
The catastrophes started in December when the microwave system on Black Mound east of the Brookings Airport failed, leaving deputies in the southern end of the county without a way to communicate with one another.
Brookings has its own communications system and, while other entities can use it when they’re in the area, it doesn’t have the capacity to reach far into the backcountry where sheriff’s deputies are often summoned.
Ward found a replacement dish that had been lost in the shuffle of emergency service directors over the past 10 years and had it installed on the tower on Bosley Butte, east of Carpenterville, using parts poached from the nonfunctioning Black Mound tower.
He told commissioners last week he didn’t know how long those repairs would last. Four days later, the microwave system at Bosley Butte crashed to the ground, again leaving emergency responders in South County unable to communicate with each other.
“We have no communications in South County at this point,” Ward said. “We still don’t know what caused it. We cannot afford to be down with our communications; this is a county emergency. We can’t have deputies going to rural areas and not having communications with them.”
A new system
Calvin Emigh of Day Wireless told commissioners the system here is failing more often, both in its electrical and mechanical systems.
“We’ve had two failures in 30 days,” he said. “Cape Blanco’s receiver also fell last week. That’s a very difficult site to maintain. We had one spare receiver; we don’t have any more. If it fails at Cape Blanco, it’ll go into (alarm) but if that fails, the site’s done.”
Cape Blanco has two receivers, Ward said. One failed, leaving the system in “alarm” but diverting communication traffic to the remaining receiver.
“If one goes down, it’ll revert (to the other receiver), but if the second one goes down, we’re down,” Ward said. “They’re way past the end-of-life. We can’t afford to stand by and wait. Everytime something like this happens, we bring a crew down, order parts — it’s expensive as hell.”
The old analog system was the best technology had to offer when it was installed 13 or 14 years ago, Emigh told the commissioners. But it’s also comparable to a rotary telephone in an age of smartphones.
A new system would be digital, which would increase its bandwidth and be able to accommodate future communication requirements.
He would like to establish the system in a “ring” to enable redundancy, so if one section in the ring failed, the signal could be sent via an alternate route.
The initial estimate to replace the entire system is $684,000, but Emigh said he needs to determine a more accurate bid, which could take 30 days. Ordering and installing parts could take another 90 days.
The county has the option of taking the funds from the Road Capital Improvement Reserve Fund.
“That’s not my concern,” Ward said of the funding responsibility. “I just need it repaired and replaced.”
Redundancy is important, as well, Imigh said, particularly since Curry County’s communications system hub is based at Grizzly Peak, near Gold Beach.
“If something goes wrong with that, it has the ability to take down the whole system,” he said. “In my humble opinion, without state-of-the-art equipment, the county’s at risk during emergency situations.”
Commissioner Chris Paasch said the work is imperative.
“If ever we were in a county emergency, we are now,” Ward said. “And we’re not just talking deputies and emergency responders. We’re talking about the public.”