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An emergency call from, not for, local responders

By DARREL RADFORD - dradford@thecouriertimes.com

In an age of instant communication, Henry County emergency responders find themselves at a difficult crossroads – and a group that’s so accustomed to answering the call for help is now seeking it.

Wednesday night, county commissioners listened as Sheriff Ric McCorkle and New Castle Mayor Greg York outlined the need for a $1.2 million upgrade in radio equipment for police, fire and emergency medical responders in Henry County, including volunteer fire departments.

It was a convincing presentation. Appropriately, former Sheriff Kim Cronk made the motion “that the County Commissioners proclaim an emergency situation for the lives of our first responders and that we ask the county council to please move forward with this project and also ask the New Castle City Council and Board of Works to approve it.” It was seconded by Commissioner Ed Yanos and supported by another former sheriff, Butch Baker.

Expensive but necessary

The 10-year lease with Motorola calls for the both city and county governments to pay $5,500 per month.

“It is expensive, but it is an update we have to have,” McCorkle said.

Cronk said the current system in use is not capable of communicating with others from neighboring counties who have upgraded their radios.

“We’re on an antiquated system as far as EMS and fire goes,” he said. “We’ve put it off and put it off because it’s so expensive. But poor communications is a big, big danger to our community.”

McCorkle talked about “dead spots” in certain areas of the county that interfere with emergency radio communication.

“Specifically, if we go to the Middletown area, which sits in a bowl,” McCorkle said. “So for us to try to get back to our dispatch or to car to car, it’s dead. No communications. We now have a new Verizon tower in Middletown that’s going to help us. What we’re asking for is new infrastructure to be piggybacked on that tower and on the water tower at Knightstown to help us with our communications.”

The plan would also provide volunteer firemen with better communication capability.

“Volunteer firemen have struggled for many years to be able to communicate back into our dispatch if there’s more than one department on the frequency,” McCorkle said. “We are asking for and applying for grants for new radios. Our radios are going to be obsolete very shortly. We’re asking the county to agree to a lease with Motorola Solutions. This will help us get this started.”

An urgent situation

Recent events in nearby Noblesville adds urgency to the emergency radio upgrade in McCorkle’s eyes.

“We’re in a situation now with what’s going on with our schools where I feel it’s imperative that we do something post-haste to make this happen,” McCorkle said. “God forbid we have an officer in a shooting situation at Shenandoah or Tri High or Knightstown or New Castle where we have to communicate with other officers coming in.

“People say ‘well use your cell phone,’” McCorkle added. “But if you’ve got more than one person calling in, more than one line downstairs, you’re jamming it. If you try to switch frequencies on your radios, sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

“If we get somebody who does something like this young man did at Noblesville and I’ve got officers in there or there are firemen attempting to assist those who have been shot, and they can’t communicate back with the ambulance personnel or other officers coming in, then shame on us,” McCorkle concluded.

But Cronk and New Castle Mayor Greg York said you really didn’t have to look beyond Henry County’s borders to see situations where better radio equipment would have helped.

“We’ve had two officer shootings in the City of New Castle. The city police officers and county deputies can communicate but ambulance and the fire department cannot communicate with our police officers at the scene,” Kim Cronk said. “If we have a school shooting at one of the schools, there’s areas of all the schools we cannot get out to talk to dispatch.”

York put the emergency radio dilemma into a life-altering perspective by reflecting back to the St. Anne’s Catholic Church fire in 2007.

“If there had been a body inside the St. Anne’s Church, our firemen would have had to come out to the door, hope that he sees an EMS guy and wave to him. We’ve got to be better than that.”

“It’s actually kind of embarrassing that our fire department, if we’re fighting a fire and we find a person in this fire, we would have to call 911 to have EMS or police come in to assist,” York said.

Giving volunteer responders better communication tools

York said the various volunteer fire departments throughout Henry County have become very important to the overall health and safety of residents. He cited a situation a few years ago when a series of fires were intentionally set in New Castle.

“Before I could get to the fire, Lewisville had covered Station 2, Spiceland had covered our Station 3, Mooreland had come in and covered Station 1. It just gives you goosebumps when you see how our fire department and the county’s volunteer fire departments interact.”

“Unfortunately our volunteer fire departments have played second fiddle in equipment and gotten radios that have been passed down and passed down.”

And that’s a real shame, York added, because of what he sees as the tremendous service they provide.

A federal grant is also being sought to give all firemen, EMS and police new radios for compatible with the system. York said both city and county responders were already behind and echoed the need for quick action to improve the situation.

“Four counties around us are already on this system,” York said. “We’re way behind the scale of where we need to be. Jeff Murray can step on the curb at Blue River High School, use his cell phone or radio, but when he steps inside the door, he has no coverage. If there was a shooter inside the school, he’d be the lone ranger. He couldn’t call for back-up, he couldn’t say this guy is fleeing to the west or fleeing to the north.”

Sept. 11 reminders

The plea for better emergency radio equipment came just one day after the 17th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

Local businessman Gary Rodgers told Commissioners he was in New York City in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, where emergency communication was never more important.

“A system like this is absolutely critical,” Rodgers said. “You don’t want someone to die because one first responder can’t hear another first responder.”

Rodgers asked, however, if the system had been tested in an industrial wind turbine environment. “There are electromagnetic interferences from industrial wind turbines. They are documented. They are in the lease. We know they happen. They are real. Has this system, or any system been tested in the kind of environment that you guys have elected to have in Henry County?”

Cronk said they have been tested in Tippecanoe, Madison and Randolph counties where many wind turbines are present and operating.

A similar presentation and more information on the emergency radio upgrade is planned for Monday’s 6:30 p.m. New Castle City Council meeting.