Ore. county officials say failing radio system 'very dangerous' for first responders, public

A proposed ballot measure would help the county raise money to replace the system, which has failed more than four times in the last seven months


Jillian Ward
The World, Coos Bay, Ore.

COOS COUNTY, Ore. — A failing 911 radio system is putting local residents and first responders at risk, says Kelley Andrews of the Coos County 911 Radio Communications Advisory Group.

“(T)he Powers police chief was confronted by a guy with a knife and couldn’t get on the radio to call for assistance,” Andrews said.

“Our fire (radio) frequency has gotten worse … There are recordings of what is being heard over the radio and it is garbage."

The Hauser Fire Department, based below Shutter Creek Correctional Institution, where one of five radio towers sits, hasn’t been receiving some calls either, said Andrews.

“This is very dangerous for the public, because we can’t get first responders even started if we can’t get the message out.”

Ballot Measure 6-178 will offer voters the chance to address the issue of outdated equipment for most departments across Coos County. It asks:

“Shall Coos County impose $.20 per $1,000 of assessed value for five years beginning 07/01/2020 for a 911 radio system? This measure may cause property taxes to increase more than 3 percent.”

The ballot summary describes the need for a new radio system because the current one has “failed more than four times in the last seven months, leaving fire, medical and police responders without radio communications.”

It adds that the manufacturer no longer supports the current system and that used parts are scarce and expensive. Furthermore, the lack of radio communications has led to “dangerous situations for both responders and citizens calling for help.”

“The failing 911 system supports 16 fire agencies, 3 ambulance services, 12 police agencies and the County Road Department,” the ballot summary reads.

“The levy is estimated to raise $1,194,908.11 in 2020-2021, $1,230,755.36 in 2021-2022, $1,267,678.02 in 2022-2023, $1,305,708.36 in 2023-2024, and $1,344,879.61 in 2024-2025. Any collected funds will be dedicated to 911 communications and cannot be used for any other purpose….”

Should the measure pass, the only first responders who would not receive the new radio system would be the Oregon State Police and Bay Cities Ambulance.

“We talked about it as a committee and didn’t feel right sitting there with our hand out with people out of work … but we’re desperate to get this fixed,” said Willy Burris, assistant chief of the Myrtle Point Fire Department.

Looking for solutions

Andrews, a retired captain and public information officer for the Coos County Sheriff’s Office, said he has grappled with the failing radio systems for years.

Two years ago, the 911 Radio Communications Advisory Group was formed. It consists of representatives of the sheriff’s office, the Myrtle Point and Bandon fire departments, and the Coos Forest Protective Association.

“I started with it when I was still working,” said Andrews, “and when I retired, I asked if I could stay on because this project has gone on for a while for us.”

He said the group identified a plan to replace the system and began looking for grants. However, the project never qualified for financial assistance.

“Every one of them said we needed a digital system, but we can’t do digital here because of the terrain,” Andrews said. “Even the federal government can’t always use digital with the Forest Service because of the terrain.”

The Federal Communications Commission requires agencies to have digital radios, a result of increased use of cell towers in the last 20 years. Older analog radios use a wider spectrum in the frequency, taking up space, which digital doesn’t.

“The mandate came from the federal government,” Andrews said. “They wanted to go digital, because it also offers clarity. But with an analog radio, when I’m getting into the outer areas, it’ll get scratchy but you can still hear people.

“With digital, it’s there or it’s not. Once you get to an area where digital doesn’t penetrate because of hills, you’re blocked off to all communication.”

Some of the more rural communities in Coos County include Fairview, Bridge and Dora-Sitkum. Andrews said those areas would have zero capability of using digital radios, while analog can still get through.

“So the radio system we’re hoping to put in is digital-capable,” Andrews said. “It meets the new standard, which is part of the federal mandate.”

There is also a plan to add more radio towers to the county. Currently, there are five, but “we’re looking to update it to 13 towers by going with the Coos Forest Protective Association,” Andrews said.

Right now, the five towers provide “pretty good” coverage to the Coquille Valley and Bay Area, he said, but no radio communication in some of the outer areas.

“If you get up into the Elliott State Forest or in the Forest Service areas behind Powers, where we have a lot of search and rescue missions, there is zero coverage in some of those places,” Andrews said.

“This new system, because we’re partnering with Coos Forest Protective Association — whose primary job is fighting wildfires and are used to being in those spots — if we get on their towers, we’re extending our coverage…”

And, said Andrews, if the new radios can be acquired, then local departments will qualify to receive grants to purchase yet more equipment and eventually move into digital use for some agencies.

Asked how the current radio system was financed in 2004, Andrews said that was during a time when the county still received timber payments from the federal government. Those payments stopped in 2007.

“This is the first time we’ve ever gone out for a public safety levy for radio units,” he said.

Nervous first responders

In Myrtle Point, Burris has been recording instances where the radios fail and emit static or indistinguishable sounds. “The radio transmissions from our dispatch to pagers, radios and mobile radios have been getting worse and worse,” he said.

“Many times, we’ve had personnel contacted by pagers but pagers didn’t go off, because radio transmission was so weak and scratchy it didn’t pick it up ...”

Burris said first responders are nervous because, “if there’s a house fire … will we get the call?”

Just in the past few weeks, he said, there have been “extreme difficulties” communicating among department personnel on the radio system, or when the system simply wasn’t functioning. “Luckily, it wasn’t a big incident (when that happened), but it made us nervous,” he said.

“The other thing is, we go on medical calls and if we need to call for assistance, we have to rely on (radios) to work.

“It’s always on the back of our minds — is it going to work when we need it?”

The radio system has gone down entirely, said Burris, forcing first responders to use their personal cell phones. But in more rural spots, cell phones aren’t always reliable.

“About eight months ago, the system was down for 36 hours and I talked to a sheriff’s office deputy who was super nervous and responding with their cell phones,” he said. “It’s nerve-racking for dispatchers, too, if they can’t get a hold of us.”

Ballots are being mailed to voters April 30 and must be returned by Election Day, May 19.

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©2020 The World, Coos Bay, Ore.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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