Responders Raise Concerns on VIPER Funding Request
Many emergency responders in Moore County hope the decision to implement VIPER doesn’t come back to bite their budgets.
Southern Pines Fire Chief Hampton Williams told the county commissioners Tuesday that his department was “well on (its) way to being compliant” with an unfunded mandate handed down by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) “until the switch to VIPER.”
The mandate, which calls for a switch from wide band to narrow band for all emergency communication systems in the United States, was enacted in December 2004 and must be operational by Jan. 1, 2013.
“A lot of us had already spent money preparing to be narrow-banded,” Williams said.
But he said he purposely removed funding for the mandated radios from his budget for the past two years because “we were led to believe” that the county would fund startup costs for VIPER, or Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders.
“Now, at zero hour, you turn around and say we have to buy radios,” Williams said.
He called the county commissioners to task for agreeing last month to approach municipalities to share a portion of the $4.5 million bill to implement VIPER, saying the decision “came as a total surprise to the majority” of the county’s emergency responders.
“It was a complete reversal from what we were led to believe,” Williams said. “VIPER might not have been our first choice, but we bought into it, even though a lot of us had already spent money preparing for the narrow-band mandate.
“In our opinion, if you force the municipalities to fund their own radios ... then you’re opening the door for interoperability to be lacking. You’re going to have a hodgepodge of radios like we do now.”
Williams asked the board to “fund 100 percent of this initiative” or suggest viable alternatives.
“We need some direction on which way we should go,” he said. “We also need a timely decision because we are all currently in the budget process for the coming fiscal year.”
Commissioner Tim Lea said a recommendation to the board from the Emergency Services Advisory Committee that the county fund the startup cost was “not binding.”
“There was never a commitment from the board,” Lea said. “A recommendation is nothing more than a recommendation.”
County Manager Cary McSwain said “several alternative solutions” are being explored.
“But we don’t have a decision yet,” McSwain said. “We’ve explored every avenue we can think of for grant money. We need to find the best option that will have the least amount of impact on the taxpayers.”
Williams noted that “grants are nice, but they are not the save-all for this project.”
Four funding options have been presented to the 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 State Highway Patrol (SHP) will provide administration and maintenance, saving the county about $90,000 a year.
The board indicated Tuesday that the solution should not involve a tax increase.
“We have no interest in increasing taxes,” Lea said.
Commissioner Nick Picerno said there wasn’t enough information to make a decision Tuesday, a sentiment shared by Board Chairman Larry Caddell.
“We’re not going to solve the problem today,” Caddell said.
The board tabled the issue until its Feb. 21 meeting, but will likely call a special meeting in the interim to discuss a solution.
VIPER is managed by the SHP for all responders across the state. The FCC issued the changeover mandate because of recent increases in emergency communications channels and the need to keep the airways as open as possible because of growth in population and use of emergency communications equipment.
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.
Contact Ted M. Natt Jr. at email@example.com.
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