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Emergency communications system needs update

T-R FILE PHOTO Brad Pfantz meets with the Marshall County Board of Supervisors regarding a plan to update the emergency communications system.

The push for an improved emergency communications system in Marshall County continues.

Many believe the emergency communications system in Marshall County is in desperate need of improvement. State Center Fire Department Chief Brad Pfantz has been working hard to secure the funding necessary.

All but two members of the Marshall County Communications Commission voted to support a project with the Board of Supervisor representative abstaining from the vote. Despite this win, funding will still be a subject of dissent.

The radio committee, which Pfantz is a member of, has made a request to fund the project through an essential purpose bond. This does not require a general obligation vote. Many on the board of supervisors believe a general obligation bond should be used, which require 60 percent approval from the public.

The project calls for the construction of two new sites to provide coverage and purchase radios and pagers for volunteers. Pfantz said it would take 12 to 18 months to build, so there is no time to waste. Building their own system will allow Marshall County to not have to pay RACOM monthly access fees.

The two sites, radios and pagers will cost $3.6 million.

Marshall County uses RACOM for its radio communication, the current network does not provide coverage for the entire county.

The problem arises from the fact that there are two emergency communications systems in the county, which are independent. UnityPoint and Marshalltown emergency services use newer technology, while volunteer services are still using old technology. These two are not compatible. 

Pfantz said there is a problem with interoperability, or the ability for multiple agencies to work together and communicate.

Marshalltown Police Chief Mike Tupper agreed on this point.

“Interoperability between all public safety agencies is not a ‘nice to have.’ It is a basic expectation,” Tupper said. “During an emergency, the ability of public safety to communicate with each other often times means the difference between life and death.” 

Often first responders get communication full of static where important information such as address and situation can’t be made out.

Pfantz said the tornado really revealed the problem in communications.

“The ability for the volunteer fire EMS folks to communicate with law enforcement, Marshalltown fire department and hospital was a real, real struggle. So that exposed what we already knew was the challenge of being able to communicate,” he said.

There are around 290 volunteer firefighters and EMTs in Marshall County, none of whom receive pay.

Pfantz believes updating the communications system is vital to ensuring the safety of these volunteers.

“It’s the least we can do is provide those volunteers with safe communication,” he said. “They’re putting their lives on the line for no pay to help their fellow citizens.”

Tupper echoed this sentiment.

“Our public safety responders deserve the resources they need to safely conduct their work,” he said. “The safety of our responders is in jeopardy until this issue is properly addressed. “

According to Pfantz, the base technology used by volunteers is 30 years old. Some want to make improvements to the system in place, but he believes this would be counterintuitive.

Tupper agreed that the technology is outdated.

“The current system being utilized by our volunteer agencies is no longer viable.  In truth, this system has been obsolete for 15 years or more,” he said. “This is not a new problem.  This problem has been discussed openly for years.  It is time to fix this problem.” 

Grundy, Tama County and Story County have all switched over to newer technology, with others in the area also in the process.

“This is, I think, one of the top purposes for government elected officials, is to provide for public safety,” Pfantz said. “And if there ever was a reason for them to approve using tax payer dollars, this is it.”

He said firefighters had to use cell phones when responding to a car fire in January because the radio system was down.

“The ability to communicate is integral to our safety and the public’s safety,” Pfantz said

He noted that if people agree this is an issue, there is something they can do.

“I would implore if people feel this is a need, reach out to the Board of Supervisors and ask for their support,” Pfantz said.

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