In a major emergency such as the recent fire at a biodiesel plant in Sedgwick, emergency crews from Harvey County rely on their radios to communicate and coordinate with other units. The Sedgwick fire department may need to communicate with the Newton fire department, who may need to communicate with the Harvey County Sheriff's department or a fire department from Sedgwick County.
While communication between different departments and agencies is vital during an emergency, officials say Harvey County's outdated radio system is becoming increasingly problematic. Although switching to a new system will be costly, emergency responders believe the change is necessary.
"We really do think this is the responsible thing that has to happen for everybody's safety and day-to-day performance," said Courtney Becker, Harvey County Communications director.
"I believe they've exhausted every option to make our current system operational," Newton Fire/EMS Chief Mark Willis added. "... It's just no longer reliable."
Harvey County currently uses a system known as "narrowbanding," but communication through the system is becoming more difficult. Willis said the range and reliability of the system changes from day to day and is impacted by atmospheric conditions. This unreliability could put county crews in danger if they lose their ability to communicate during an emergency.
"Radios are a vital link for the safety of our personnel," Willis said. "It also impacts the safety of those we serve."
According to a presentation by Becker at the recent Harvey County Commission meeting, all surrounding counties except for Marion have gone to the 800 MHz system. The new system would offer better interoperability with other agencies and also is the network hospitals prefer for communicating with EMS.
The project will be expensive, however — cost estimates range from $3.3 million to $5.1 million.
Officials recommend moving to the new system in late 2014. Newton Fire/EMS already has begun preparing for the change, obtaining several radios through grants.
"All of us are trying to do what we can to access grants to be prepared for it," Willis said. "... Yes, it's going to cost money, and yes, it's expensive. It's just the reality of the evolving communications technology. It comes down to being a safety concern for emergency responders. In the long run ... it's where we need to go. It will be change for the better."
County commissioner Chip Westfall voiced his support for the new system and recommended officials from across the county meet to discuss the new radios.
"It's just time," he said. "Maybe we're a little behind, even."