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Calhoun County, Ala., Debates First Responder Radio Upgrade

Governing bodies in Calhoun County, Ala., are considering whether to upgrade the county's P25 radio system for police, fire and other agencies. A study about options and costs will likely be conducted.

First responder speaking into a radio
Shutterstock/Motortion Films
(TNS) — Local leaders took another step toward saving the radio system that allows first responders quick, simple communication, though a fix may not soon arrive.

The Calhoun County 911 Board earlier this month alerted local police, fire and government agencies to a necessary upgrade for the countywide P25 radio system, one that will likely cost more than $5 million. The system allows interdepartmental support that has been of crucial importance in recent years — such as after the 2018 tornado that hit Jacksonville and during a tense police standoff July 3 in Weaver — by connecting emergency workers at the flip of a switch or turn of a dial, rather than with multiple handsets and control consoles for each agency.

Emergency service leaders were asked at that meeting to seek verbal commitment from local governing bodies to support the system.

They returned to the Oxford Civic Center Thursday, and most governing bodies had accepted the upgrade as necessary, despite the cost.

"It's a necessity," said Wayne Willis, mayor of Weaver and former police officer. "It's not a matter of 'can we do it' but 'how do we do it.'"

The system provider, Motorola, will stop supporting the aging technology in use by Calhoun County agencies by 2023, county 911 Director Kevin Jenkins explained Thursday, though the system could still function for some time after. The problem, he said, was that Motorola will no longer support the outmoded equipment, and replacement gear simply won't exist when it's needed.

"If a console dies today at OPD, we can't go out and buy another one," Jenkins said. "They've already designed three different kinds beyond that one. That's a key vulnerability."

City councils in Anniston, Jacksonville and Oxford had made verbal commitments, their fire chiefs reported; more final agreements would have to wait until all parties had made a decision and the prorated costs were available.

Jacksonville State University had yet to reach a decision, a spokesperson said during the meeting, though discussion had been active.

The Calhoun County Commission also had yet to commit to the potential upgrade, citing uncertainty about the future of the system and whether another essential upgrade would be required in the coming years.

County Sheriff Matthew Wade and county Administrator Mark Tyner suggested undertaking a study to ensure all options had been exhausted, which could make a commitment easier to obtain from the County Commission — a body that can create no new revenue streams.

By meeting's end, it was agreed that the 911 Board would find out the cost of providing such a study and confer with the County Commission about paying to undertake it.

If the commission and Jacksonville State University agree to pay in, another meeting is unlikely, said board chairman Gary Sparks.

"All we need to do is start the ball rolling," Sparks said.

©2021 The Anniston Star, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.