Carter County Commission

Capt. Tom Smith of the Carter County Sheriff's Department addresses the Carter County Commission on Monday evening on a proposed $3.5 million countywide communications system.

ELIZABETHTON — The Carter County Commission is considering a countywide project to install an all new communications system that would connect 10 different agencies and enable users to hear and be heard over 95 percent of the mountainous county.

Capt. Tom Smith of the Carter County Sheriff’s Department briefed the county commissioners on the proposed communications system during a special called session Monday evening. The communications system would fall under the direction of the Carter County mayor. It would be maintained and supervised by a new county communications officer whose official position was approved by the County Commission a couple of months ago.

Smith said the communications system is expected to cost around $3.5 million. He said the reason for the high cost is because it is designed to meet all the needs of 10 different agencies. These include the Carter County Sheriff’s Department, the Elizabethton Police Department, the Elizabethton Fire Department, the county’s seven volunteer fire departments, Elizabethton Public Works, the Carter County constables, the Carter County Rescue Squad, the Carter County School System, the Carter County Highway Department and the Carter County Landfill.

Smith said all stakeholders will be able to provide guidance with this system and will be encouraged to do so. He said the purpose of the project is to provide the county with a reliable, technologically advanced, state-of-the-art wide-area voice/data network, and an interoperable digital radio network.

The designated system will be a 4-site, 4-channel multicast design that will allow users to hear and be heard throughout the entire county and with projected coverage between 95.9% and 98.4% mobile talk-out/talk-in. Included in the design is an analog simulcast paging system for the county volunteer firefighters to use their existing fire pagers.

Smith said the system’s advantages include the fact that lives will be saved, response times will decrease and first responders will have true interoperability with county, city, state and federal agencies.

He said another advantage is that the system can be programmed over the air. He said it will allow for software upgrades and operational features to be sent to the mobile and portable radios over the air without the need to physically connect a radio programming device to the radio. He said the ability to program radios over the air provides Carter County significant cost savings over the way things are done now. He said currently he must touch any radio in the sheriff’s department if he needs to reprogram it. With over 70 radios in the department’s cruisers, “It becomes a full time job,” Smith said.

Another goal of the system is to reduce the communications failure rate during a major disaster. Smith began his presentation with a discussion of the communications failure that occurred during the Parkland School Shooting incident. “Communications is the first thing to fail during a time of crisis due to the increase in radio traffic,” Smith said. Smith spoke from experience as a result of the difficulties experienced with the Doe River Flood of 1998.

Smith said the proposed system has been researched for 15 years. He said the research indicated that the Tennessee Statewide System did not fit the county’s needs. One of the big differences is the fact the state uses ultrahigh frequency, as opposed to very high frequencies the county would use. Smith said the VHF frequencies are less likely to be interrupted by atmospheric noise and electrical equipment interference.

Smith said he has also discussed the difference with local officers of the Tennessee Highway Patrol. He said they said the state radios were “like a brick” when they got to Roan Mountain and additional towers would have to be employed to overcome the problem if the state system was chosen.

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John Thompson covers Carter and Johnson counties for the Johnson City Press since 1998. He grew up in Washington County and graduated from University High and East Tennessee State University

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