When the wildfires were threatening structures in Swain County a couple of weeks ago, first responders had to knock on more than 200 doors to alert residents that they needed to evacuate.
A $3 million project to build a central 911 dispatching center inside the Haywood County Sheriff’s Office aims to reduce response times for police, fire and rescue calls.
Emergency agencies throughout Haywood County expect to be clocking in quicker response times soon.
Fire, police and EMS divisions within the county will begin using a new Computer-Aided Dispatch and Mobile Data Information System this week, aimed at improving efficiency as well as interagency communication.
“It will reduce the response time a bit,” said Kristy Lanning, director of technology and communications for Haywood County.
Currently, dispatchers field incoming emergency calls and contact the appropriate responders — be it police, fire or an ambulance. With the new system, agencies will be able to access information about an emergency in real-time as the dispatcher inputs it.
The county will save money by funding the multijurisdictional project rather than purchasing a system for each emergency response agency.
The Haywood County Board of Commissioners heard an update on the project at their meeting Monday.
The $354,944 project is being paid for with designated Emergency Telephone System Funds, a small surcharge on monthly phone bills that is earmarked for county 9-1-1 systems. The cost was spread over two years and included software, hardware and some of the mobile equipment, which allows public safety officials to connect to the new system from their vehicles.
Individual agencies will pay for annual licensing, maintenance and upgrades to the system. A new administrator position has been created to oversee use and management of the new system.
It also uses GPS technology to locate the emergency responders who are nearest to a particular location.
“This is a huge step forward,” said Mark Swanger, chairman of the Haywood County Board of Commissioners.
The commissioners approved the project in April, and public safety officials have spent the subsequent months implementing the system and training employees how to use it.
Haywood County’s technology director Kristy Wood wasn’t exactly latching onto the hope that commissioners would grant her $2.8 million budget request for the county’s 911 Communications department this year.
The proposed budget shows an allocation of about $495,000 instead, a little less than what the department got last year.
“I knew that that would be denied,” said Wood. “[But] if we don’t ask for it, they might not be aware that it’s such a big need.”
The big need that Wood is referring to is a total upgrade of the county’s antiquated radio system for first responders, firefighters and law enforcement.
According to a study conducted three years ago, these officials work with a coverage rate of only 55 percent in the county for their portable radios and 70 percent for their cell phones. If the system were updated, that coverage would increase to 98 percent for cell phones and 86 percent for portable radios.
Most times, responders lose coverage in the backcountry and wilderness areas where they must rescue hikers and respond to wrecks, brushfires and more. But sometimes, they lose coverage in parts of the county where residents live.
“Their radio, a lot of times, is their lifeline,” said Wood. “That’s the only way they can call for help or communicate with each other. We just got to get it replaced.”
Wood said if she lived in one of these areas with spotty coverage, she would not feel safe.
Moreover, responders are unable to cross-communicate with different agencies. For example, a deputy from the sheriff’s office wouldn’t be able to communicate with EMS out in the field.
“It’s two totally separate 20-year-old systems between each of those agencies,” said Wood.
While the fire department and EMS operate on the UHF radio system, the sheriff’s office and police departments are on a different bandwidth with the VHF system.
With the county cutting more than 2.5 percent from its budget this year, commissioners have forwarded the appropriations request past state officials all the way up to U.S. Congressman Heath Shuler’s office.
Wood knows several surrounding counties that have put in communications requests as well, and hopes Shuler will realize there is a need for major equipment updates in Western North Carolina.
Assistant County Manager Marty Stamey, who once headed emergency services in Haywood, said while the rural counties can’t afford such a major expense, the federal government may be able to lend a hand.
If the money doesn’t come through, Wood says the 911 department will have little choice but to continue with less than adequate equipment.
“We can go on like we are indefinitely,” said Wood. “But at some point, somebody’s going to get killed. It is a safety issue, and at some point, something is going to happen that didn’t have to happen.”
Wood says there are “plenty of examples” where communication has completely broken down, but she was not prepared to discuss them in further detail.