All on board: Farmville agrees to join regional radio project

Published 9:00 am Wednesday, February 14, 2024

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The wreck happened right in front of the Farmville fire station. One vehicle was damaged, the other was overturned, with five people needing medical care. And yet at that point, Farmville Fire Chief Daniel Clark couldn’t use the department’s radio system to connect with dispatch and request support. 

“It’s happened countless times,” Clark told the Farmville town council during their Wednesday, Feb. 7 meeting. “Today we had a vehicle overturned on its roof, right in front of the fire station. Sometimes, we could talk back and forth with dispatch, other times we couldn’t. I had to run back and forth to my car several times to get the radio to talk to them. When I keyed up the radio to talk to them, they told me the only thing they could hear was (static).”  

Clark pointed out at that time, the fire department was trying to rescue a man trapped under the steering wheel of the overturned truck, calling for the helicopter that dispatch had been bringing in and asking for additional departments to respond to the call. 

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“It was a very critical incident,” Clark said. “We were trying to get resources in and we just couldn’t talk.” 

Clark shared a similar story about when he first came to Farmville. The very first call he responded to was an odor investigation at the Farmville train station. 

“And I couldn’t talk to anybody,” Clark said. “It just wouldn’t work.” 

The same goes for when firefighters respond to incidents at Longwood University. 

“In-building coverage (for radios), it nearly doesn’t exist,” Clark said. “We go inside these buildings at Longwood on fire alarm calls, people stuck in elevators, EMS calls and you’re not able to talk back (to dispatch).”  

That’s why Clark strongly encouraged the town council to support Prince Edward County’s plan for a regional radio system. 

Going over details 

Now first off, let’s clear one thing up. Yes, Farmville just invested in a new radio system, not even two years ago. But that was for the police. And having separate systems, both in town and in the county, is part of the problem. 

The sheriff’s office has one system, Farmville police have another. Fire and Rescue operate on yet another system and all of these have problems working together. Fire departments can’t talk directly to the sheriff’s office or Farmville police. All the agencies can monitor the sheriff’s channel but can’t respond to a request. Currently, an agency has to call in to the Farmville Emergency Communications Center. Then in turn, those dispatchers have to call the different agencies and pass on the message. That takes up time and, as Clark pointed out, it’s not feasible when dealing with a situation. 

Prince Edward fire and rescue are in worse shape. Their radio system operates off one antenna on Lee Mountain. Now Lee Mountain is on the far eastern side of the county, so that means problems on the western side when you’re in some of the valleys. Also, this system is about 30 years old. 

“I had to source that out in the middle of the night,” said Prince Edward County Deputy Emergency Management Coordinator Trey Pyle. He said dispatch called him one night, concerned because the previous antenna wasn’t working. “So I started making phone calls. We found it and put it in service the next day.” 

Now again, this is about a 30-year-old system. Nobody makes it anymore and to upgrade alone would be $60,000. So instead, Pyle came up with a plan to solve the overall problem. 

A new idea for Farmville 

“Where we had a really good system 22 years ago, it’s gotten to a point we’re living on borrowed time,” Pyle explained. 

So instead, Prince Edward staff developed a plan to buy one new system and bring every agency on it. That means the Farmville Police Department, the Prince Edward Sheriff’s Office, the Longwood Police Department, the Hampden-Sydney Police Department and all fire and rescue operations in the area. Prince Edward’s Public Works and Solid Waste departments would also be included, with space available to include the school system in the future. 

To do this, county staff reviewed a number of different companies and identified the Motorola Countywide P25 UHF Phase 2 Trunked Radio System as the best option. 

There would be three tower sites set up under this project. The main tower would be a Dominion Energy tower on East Third Street and Milnwood Road. The second would be on Prince Edward Highway, just past the convenience site in Prospect. And the third would be at the intersection of Douglas Church Road at Abilene Road. 

Motorola was selected because of the new Farmville police radio system mentioned earlier. 

“The sheriff’s office already had a system similar, the town had just worked with (Motorola) to put in a system for the police department and nobody wants to see any of that infrastructure lost,” Pyle said. “We want to use that infrastructure to build a better system.” 

As we reported a few months ago, Prince Edward negotiated a deal in December, with supervisors voting to sign the contract. It was, however, contingent with all partners coming on board and sharing the cost. 

Pyle said that both Longwood and Hampden-Sydney had given a verbal commitment to join in. Farmville was the last partner to join the project. Longwood officials say they do intend to join, but there are still details to hammer out. 

“While there are still details to work out and there is not yet an MOU (memorandum of understanding) in place regarding our portion of the project, the university has let the county know that we intend to join the regional radio effort,” said Longwood spokesman Matt McWilliams. 

Farmville, county talk costs

But first, let’s talk price. This total package will cost $7.22 million, split between Prince Edward, the town of Farmville, Longwood University and Hampden-Sydney College. Prince Edward’s portion would be 77% of the cost, as it has the most agencies involved. That would add up to $5.57 million. Farmville’s portion would be 20% or $1.41 million, with Longwood paying $167,664 and Hampden-Sydney paying $64,486. Now the county did get a $1 million grant to help cover the cost, so that reduces the bill for everyone involved. 

With that grant, the county’s portion will be $4.8 million, with Farmville paying $1.21 million. Longwood would pay $144,450 and Hampden-Sydney would cover $55,557. 

“This radio system will fix the issues,” Pyle said. “It fixes the long-term cost, so we’re all not going to have to maintain our own systems. We can pay one price together.” 

As for Farmville’s portion, Town Manager Dr. Scott Davis said no borrowing would be needed. In fact, he expects Farmville to be able to cover its portion in under three years, by 2026.  

“I think we all agree this is pretty important,” said Farmville Mayor Brian Vincent. 

The council unanimously gave their support to moving forward with the project, saying it was necessary. 

“I just think it’s something long overdue,” said council member Donald Hunter. “To save one life, it’s worth it.” 

What happens next? 

Currently, Prince Edward is negotiating with the tower owners, to allow access to each of the three mentioned earlier. Pyle said work could start in the next few months, once those contracts are in hand. He added that it’s needed now. 

“I can tell you right now it’s key up, wait for them to say hey I can’t hear you,” Pyle said. “Key up again, try it again. Nobody has time to pick up a cell phone and call dispatch in the middle of a call.”