County transitions to new radios

Catawba County emergency responders are in the early stages of implementing more than 350 new radios purchased through grant funding.

The 800 megahertz radios' technology capabilities allow firefighters, rescue squads and police departments to communicate on the same frequencies, helping responders to react more effectively and efficiently during emergencies.

The new radios allow emergency responders to communicate on the North Carolina Highway Patrol's Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders (VIPER), which let responders communicate directly to each other instead of having the message relayed through a communications tower, said Newton Fire Chief Kevin Yoder.

The technology also prevents emergency responders from "walking over" each other, or when two people speak at the same time, while communicating on the department's older VHF radios.

"It's everyone having the ability to hear the same thing at the same time," Yoder said. "That's really important."

Emergency responders have different names for the same frequencies they use when responding to an emergency. The interoperability of the VIPER system and the 800 MHz radios streamlines and simplifies the process.

Newton Fire Department received 27 800 MHz radios and accessories through a Federal Emergency Management Agency's Assistance to Firefighters regional grant. The total value of Newton's grant project is $67,500, with a 5 percent match, Yoder said.

Catawba County Chief Information Officer Terry Bledsoe said 356 radios were purchased to date for county departments, from the fire service to emergency medical services. Because of the large volume of radios purchased, Bledsoe said Catawba County has enough funding to get 46 more radios. Every fire department will receive an additional two radios.

There are about 700 of the 800 MHz radios in the county.

Newton Fire Department recently received its 27 initial radios, and department members are currently learning to use the radios and completely understand the devices' capacity.

They must also test spots within the city that could be blocked from VIPER service, much like areas where cell phones have poor reception.

"We'll be going to buildings where we think there might be some difficulties, and we'll see how the radios work," Yoder said.

In the event firefighters find a spot where the radios don't work, they can know in advance to operate another frequency or the department's VHF radios in those specific areas.

Newton's radios comes with several accessories to make using the devices easier.

The Catawba County Sheriff's Office is also phasing in the 800 MHz radios into its program. The sheriff's office received a Governor's Crime Commission grant in 2010 for $243,248 with a 50-50 match to be used toward the purchase of 94 portable radios.

Implementing the new devices, however, hasn't been easy.

Catawba County Sheriff Coy Reid said Thursday that the department has had trouble connecting the new radios with the VIPER system. Deputies in Catawba County continue to use their VHS devices in addition to the 800 MHz radios.

Break-out box:
Radios received by department
Bandys Fire Department 16
Catawba Fire Department 23
Claremont Fire Department 19
Conover Fire Department 26
Cooksville Fire Department 9
Hickory Fire Department 10
Long View Fire Department 15
Maiden Fire Department 16
Mountain View Fire Department 16
Newton Fire Department 27
Oxford Fire Department 11
Propst Fire Department 9
Sherrills Ford Fire Department 30
St. Stephens Fire Department 16
Catawba Rescue Squad 14
Claremont Rescue Squad 18
Hickory Rescue Squad 31
Maiden Rescue Squad 16
Newton-Conover Rescue Squad 14
Catawba County EMS 20
Total 356