A Critical Connection: New Tower Links Responders
BY TED M. NATT JR.
Moore County Emergency Manager Scot Brooks remembers standing between his counterparts from Montgomery and Lee counties three years ago trying to coordinate fighting one of the largest structure fires in Moore County history.
The three stood in front of the 300,000-square-foot former Mil-liken textile plant in Robbins using multiple communications systems to direct an estimated 125 firefighters from five counties to knock down the four-alarm fire.
“That old knitting plant went up like a lighter knot,” Brooks said. “The three of us had to work together because it was a big fire and we didn’t have intercommunication capabilities.”
The issue will soon be resolved because the county is working with the N.C. State Highway Patrol (SHP) to implement VIPER, a new emergency communications system that will connect first responders throughout the county and beyond.
The SHP, which will hold the license and administer the program on behalf of the county, has already constructed a tower in Carthage and is nearing completion of another off Morganton Road in Southern Pines.
“Once that tower is operational in mid-January, we will be able to spend almost a year testing the system and working out the kinks,” Brooks said. “Our main initial concerns are efficiency in the Robbins area and building penetration, especially in industrial buildings.”
The Federal Communications Commission has imposed a Jan. 1, 2013, deadline for all emergency communications systems in the United States to be narrow band instead of wide band. Noncompliant agencies face fines, loss of their license, or both.
“We had to do something and our system was fairly old anyway,” Brooks said. “There had not been a major improvement to the system since it was installed in 1997. The VIPER system will allow us to communicate with all of our first responder partners in Moore County and throughout North Carolina, so it’s a slam dunk.
“Every county will have its own channel on the VIPER system and that’s already been mapped out. VIPER takes us from 11 channels to 31. It’s a major safety and efficiency boost.”
VIPER, which stands for Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders, is a $191 million SHP project in which 178 of 240 towers have been constructed across North Carolina and are on the air. Thirty-seven other sites are under construction and fully funded, including the Southern Pines site, and 25 sites remain unfunded.
Four options for funding the $5.28 million cost to Moore County have been presented to county commissioners. The options vary according to amounts taken from such sources as the advanced life support (ALS) tax for ambulance and paramedic service, enhanced 911 funds and the county’s general fund, along with district fire taxes and municipal fees.
One cost-saving aspect is the fact that the county will not be required to secure licenses for each of the numerous units using the system. In addition, the SHP will provide administration and maintenance, saving the county about $90,000 a year.
Almost every fire, rescue, ambulance and law enforcement agency in Moore County will use the VIPER system. The Pinehurst Police Department has opted to use its own narrow band system, while the Southern Pines Police Department has yet to choose between its FCC-compliant system and VIPER.
“We have the option to use VIPER as our primary communications system and ours as a backup, or vice versa,” Chief John Letteney said. “We haven’t decided which primary method of communication we’re going to use. The goal is make sure we’re interoperable, no matter what type of equipment is in the patrol car or on the officer.”
Southern Pines and Pinehurst will be able to patch into the VIPER system.
“It’s not that we don’t want to be on the same system, but we’ve been preparing for the change to narrow band for four years,” Pinehurst Police Capt. Floyd Thomas said. “We’ve got a lot of money invested. We don’t have any issues now and we don’t expect any in the future. When 2013 rolls around, we should be ready to go.”
Letteney said his department has spent the past six years researching narrow band and implementing it in phases.
“We’re on VIPER now because we built that capability into our new building,” he said. “We also have VIPER radios in our mobile command post and portable radios if needed in a multi-jurisdictional event. We have spent a lot of time and effort to make sure we do it right.
“Public safety communications is critical. It’s an issue that affects every resident of Moore County.”
More like this story