By Susan Redden
Some law enforcement officers had to communicate by cellphone when they were searching in late May for a Webb City youngster found drowned in a pond.
“We had cases where one group was searching an area, and another group would show up there, because they didn’t know,” said Carl Francis, Webb City police chief and city administrator. “And if we had to contact some agencies, we had to call their dispatch center, and they would have to contact their officers. You’re never going to eliminate chaos in a big operation like that, but real-time communication will go a long way.”
That’s the goal of a countywide public safety radio system proposed by Sheriff Randee Kaiser. With the program, agencies in the county would be able to talk to each other, eliminating the need to use cellphones or to relay information via dispatch centers.
The effort follows an increasing move toward consolidation and cooperation among the county’s public safety agencies and Jasper County Emergency Services Board. The county board for several months has provided dispatching for the Jasper County sheriff’s office and now is dispatching 911 emergency calls for Carthage and Carl Junction before handing them off to those communities.
Representatives of at least 40 public safety departments — 15 from Jasper County alone — showed up after Webb City issued a call for help in searching for 14-year-old Freddie Williams on May 29. Francis said the department set up a command post to manage the search, but with different agencies communicating on different radio systems, he said the search did not have “the direct, real-time communication” that would have been most helpful.
“It’s vital in those types of situations when you want fast coverage, without duplication,” he said. “With a countywide system, there can be a ‘talk group’ where everyone, regardless of agency, can communicate with each other.”
April Tarrant, executive director of the Jasper County Emergency Services Board, agreed. She said the ability for direct communication already exists on mutual aid channels, but they often are overwhelmed with traffic in an emergency.
“This will give us a private mutual aid channel,” she said. “This will be like having everyone in the same room. And it will take away the guesswork that can happen when you can’t communicate directly.”
Kaiser said that was his goal when he decided to buy new radios, and to purchase the same system now in use in Webb City and Carthage. That created a financial incentive for other agencies to get on board, he said, because they were able to buy new radios at the same price as the county’s purchase of 130 portable and in-car units.
“We got a good price, so I went to the other agencies and asked them if they wanted to get in,” he said. “We had about eight different agencies get on board.”
The new equipment should be delivered in 30 to 60 days. And, the county plans to maintain the radio towers that will support the system, freeing smaller agencies from that chore and expense.
“Otherwise, each agency has to put up and maintain their own towers. We’re already maintaining tower sites to cover the whole county, so I proposed they get on our system,” Kaiser said.
The Webb City Police Department has been using the radio system for about two and a half years, and the Carthage police and fire departments started using them earlier this year.
“The goal is for everyone to have the same system, and then they can be connected,” said Carthage police Chief Greg Dagnan. “It will be a huge step forward to have radios that work anywhere in the county, to be able to talk to anyone else in the county. And, they have better range and clarity.”
Tarrant has tested the radios and believes the system especially will help responders farther from the center of the county.
“We have fire departments in Jasper, that goes into Barton County, and Avilla, that goes into Lawrence County,” she said. “There were times they couldn’t talk back to us, and that’s a responder safety issue.”
The new system will include links to ensure a connection with the Joplin Police Department. Chief Lane Roberts called the consolidation effort “a smart thing” and said it would not change JPD’s ability to communicate with those agencies or the county 911 center.
“Our ability to communicate with each other is so much better than it was even a couple years ago. We’ve exchanged CADs (computer-aided dispatch terminals) so we see where each others’ officers are going; our call centers work together, and they can be hooked up in the event of an emergency,” he said. “Long-term, the sheriff and I want to find a way to bring together the two communication systems.”
Roberts months ago suggested the consolidation of the Joplin and county dispatch centers, and committees from the two agencies were named to look into the proposal. He said that work is under way, but addressing technological and logistical issues, along with potential consequences and costs, is taking time.
“We’ve not stopped; we’re making continuous progress,” he said.
The final step will be getting FCC approval for radio frequencies that can be used to form a local network. Carl Francis, Webb City police chief and city administrator, said Webb City and other agencies are looking at the possibility of donating frequencies that can be used by the system.