Radio issue nobody's fault, communication director says

Friday, June 12, 2015

Bourbon County Commissioners learned Tuesday the Garland Fire District is not to be blamed for problems with radio communication with other fire districts.

Commissioners met with Fort Scott Fire Chief and radio communication director Paul Ballou and Traci Reed, who oversees central dispatch.

Ballou and Reed spoke to commissioners about the ongoing dispatch and communication upgrades.

The dispatch console and radio equipment have already been upgraded. The second and final phase of the project will cost about $130,000.

"One of the worst areas in the county is Garland," Ballou said. "I think most of that is terrain."

He said several years ago, there was an agreement to use 911 funds to install a repeater at Garland.

"That's what we've got, Garland's got their own repeater," Ballou said. "The LEPC (Local Emergency Planning Committee) frequency covers the county really well except Garland. When we narrow-banded it dropped off.

"So what we did on Garland's request, they got their own frequency. Before the upgrade of the new dispatch, we had to sacrifice a control head in dispatch to do that. With the upgrade of the new dispatch, we were actually able to give them their own frequency."

Ballou provided commissioners with a record of calls the Garland Fire District has had from Jan. 1 through May 31.

"They're not huge on call loads, but they do have runs," Ballou said. "I'm in close contact with Connie May (Garland assistant fire chief). In talking to Connie right now the system we put into place, with their own control head and their own computer, they seem to get their calls and she's telling me everything works fine."

He said there is still a problem with the LEPC, city fire and law enforcement signal is still weak in the Garland area, Ballou said.

"Believe me, that is not uncommon from what we've seen," Ballou said.

He said he expected some "radio people" to be in town Wednesday, with the plan to go look at the set up in Garland. Ballou said it is not the same company that installed the system at Garland, and added that company did "a wonderful job."

"They called yesterday to see how it's working and it's working just like it's supposed to," Ballou said. "Only thing we cautioned Garland and we told them is you're isolated."

He said that's the reason the other signal is not working for the Garland area.

"We knew that going in," Ballou said.

"When it's discussed here in front of us, it always sounds like it's their fault," Commission Chair Barbara Albright said. "It always sounds like they're not doing a good job and it's all their fault. It's not their fault?"

"As far as communication, it's no one's fault," Ballou said. "What we're seeing down here is the result of what every other community in the United States is seeing. That narrow banding, it narrowed signal and cut the distance that a signal can travel. The distance is the primary thing."

The Federal Communications Commission mandated that all licensed radio communications were moved from a wideband (25kHz) to a narrowband (12kHz) system by Jan. 1, 2013 with the goal of converting to an even more narrowband width (6.25 kHz.)

Ballou said the goal is to get each fire department on the same, stronger LEPC frequency. He said the same problem existed to obtain complete coverage for the police department and sheriff's office and there are still problem areas in Fort Scott and Bourbon County. He said multiple repeaters have been used for law enforcement, with each operating with their own repeater, but the company has not determined how to do that for Garland.

"They were afraid if we had a fire call and we had multiple people in the Garland area, north of Garland, they were afraid the one repeater would cut the other repeater off and cut the trucks' communication off," Ballou said. "So Garland requested their own frequency and it was a lot easier to work. I'll admit that it was, but they're isolated."

"So they're isolated. Would you have done that?" Albright asked.

"Given the fact of the type of communication and problems, yes," Ballou said. "At least temporarily."

Ballou assured commissioners "we" work with Garland "equally as important" as other outlying departments and fire districts. He said they all talk, especially after a large incident.

Ballou said each department is required to have a mutual aid agreement on file. In the case of a large incident on south U.S. Highway 69, Ballou said four fire departments would respond.

"The big issue for us, the thread we keep talking about is safety as far as being preventative," Albright said. "That's why I think we were concerned about communication, is safety."

Ballou said it's not a matter of someone not doing their job, because everybody is doing well. He said the problem has been converting to narrow band, which "nobody liked." He said in some areas, some entities had to replace each piece of their equipment in order to be in compliance.

"So overall, communications have greatly improved over Bourbon County?" Albright said.

"I think I can safely say if you talk to the sheriff's department, rural fire, they know we're making progress, but they know we've got a ways to go," Ballou said.

He said a big share of the 911 funds have been spent on making upgrades, which are continuing, even in the Fort Scott city limits.

In response to Albright's question about the role cell phones can play, Ballou said there are applications for dispatching and scanners. He said the downside is there could be as much as a three-minute delay when paging with a cell phone.

"And we can't do that," Ballou said.

While looking at Garland's call run sheet, Ballou said it is "pretty typical" for the district.

"These are showing where they were dispatched and where they were en route," Reed said. "So they are hearing our dispatches and we are hearing them just fine in dispatch, as well."

Bourbon County Emergency Manager William Wallis sat in during the meeting and after looking at the run sheet, said a radio check may not be needed. During a previous meeting when members of the Drywood and Scott township trustees and other emergency personnel attended to discuss issues with the Garland Fire District, Wallis had suggested a county-wide radio check be conducted.

Albright said there has been some "unrest" between the township trustees and the Garland Fire District, which covers Drywood and a portion of Scott townships.

First District Commissioner Lynne Oharah said there has been a "lack of person-to-person communication" between the fire districts and townships.

Albright said there were some people who have been under the impression that Garland Fire District is not responding to calls as they should. There also were accusations that the Garland Fire District is not being cooperative and chose to have isolated radio communication.

Of the 23 calls listed on the sheet, there was one incident that Garland did not respond. Wallis said that is good, and Ballou said it is not uncommon for a rural fire department, which consists of volunteers, to miss a page.

Wallis said his concern is after Garland leaves the station, they are unable to communicate with other departments that might be responding. He also asked if Garland can communicate with others after arriving on the scene. Ballou said he believes they have that capability.

Later, May and County Counselor Justin Meeks attended the meeting to continue discussing the county's role in governing fire districts. On May 26, Meeks reported there are two state statutes that outline fire district governing authority. Chapter 19 allows for a county-wide fire district with county commission oversight. Chapter 80 allows township trustees oversight.

Garland is the only district in Bourbon County that falls under township trustee governance. That means the trustees in Drywood and Scott townships must vote to ask for an audit of the fire district's financial records.

Don Banwart, Scott Township trustee, and Darrell Bloomfield, Drywood Township trustee, have stated they have been refused access to the fire district's financial records. Meeks has said trustees who govern a fire district should have access to those records.

The public also may request those open documents, but also must expect to pay a fee for copies and/or the time it takes to locate those records. Meeks said the fee the Garland Fire District charges is not out of line with how much the county charges for open documents.

Meeks said Tuesday each fire district would have to give commissioners approval to allow county commissioners to be responsible for auditing all the fire districts.

"Everything we have goes through the county, but the township should be auditing us, but they never have," May said.

"That audit needs to be done," Meeks said. "The townships need to do that. You (commissioners) have no responsibility with audits at all. The fire districts and all townships have to follow statutory requirements. Outside of safety issues, which I think the concern comes from with commissioners, the chapter does not allow the county to be overseer. Townships have to give the county that authority."

May asked the commissioners if they have checked the call records for the fire district and Albright said they had that conversation with Ballou earlier and he confirmed the problem with communication is due to the terrain.

In response to a comment from Oharah, May agreed "it would be nice" if each department operated on the same radio frequency.

"We've done what we could to better our area and provide assistance for other areas," May said. "As for auditing, I don't know what to tell you. Yes, I am and I tried to bring that before our board. They are used to doing it a certain way and they should be doing it the proper way."

"I would say, yes, an audit needs to occur," Meeks said.

He said the purpose of an audit, which would not be done during an open meeting, is not to tell the district how to spend money, but to ensure money is properly appropriated and "you're not taking a vacation."

Albright said one complaint she heard is the fire board implemented a mill levy increase.

"Our department had a lot of things that needed to be taken care of," May said. "We had to come up with some of that and put it into place."

May said she can't say how the department compares with others.

"We started ours with the Kansas Fire Marshal's Office," May said. "You've heard all kinds of things, but there's two sides to every story. We haven't increased ours (mill levy) for a long time."

She said in comparison, other fire districts have a larger tax base than Garland. She also said she does not expect an increase in the next budget.

Meeks recommended waiting to take any action until an audit can be done.

Other business

*Commissioners signed a policy establishing a call rotation for the five towing companies in Bourbon County.

* Following an executive session, commissioners voted to hire Clint E. Anderson as the new county appraiser. He will replace Judy Wallis, who is retiring July 1.