The Halifax County Firefighters Association has received a $998,255 Federal Emergency Management Agency Assistance to Firefighters grant which will buy 221 portable and 51 mobile Viper radios.
While the grant will not fully put Viper radios in the hands of every firefighter in the county, “It will go a long way,” said Richard Cook, assistant Roanoke Rapids fire chief.
“Some of the departments already have some,” said Darlington Volunteer Fire Department Chief Richard Pulley. “Each department has one handheld – at least one.”
Once the fire departments receive the radios it will push Viper radio use in the county to between 80 to 90 percent, said Halifax County Emergency Management Coordinator Buddy Wrenn.
Replacing an antiquated system
The award of the grant comes at a time when the current VHF system has become antiquated, Pulley said. “It’s a huge asset for the county – not individual departments. That’s one of the reasons we decided to do a regional, county-wide grant so we could all be interoperable with each other. It’s just a better radio system.”
Pulley said Darlington had a call last week on Interstate 95 in a fairly open area and the Halifax County 911 Center could not understand the traffic. “I had to find another spot to stand to get in touch with them. The good thing about the digital Viper is a better signal.”
That’s not to say the VHF radios have not been good, Cook said. “VHF has served us well over the years but I think we’re at an age where we’re getting more radio frequencies, you’re getting more interference so VHF is not working as well as it used to work.”
Cook said, “As of right now, we’ve got the city of Roanoke Rapids maintaining a repeater, you’ve got Halifax maintaining a repeater.”
The state maintains the Viper system.
“VHF was a lot better off, a lot better system, before they went to narrow band which is splitting the signals or channels so you have a lot more bleed-over now so you’ll hear other radio systems on ours without knowing what traffic is really ours,” Pulley said.
Wrenn said the VHF system is about a 50-year-old technology. “We’ve kind of ‘band-aided’ it or patched it, trying to get it to work until we got to the digital system.”
Viper has been around for about 20 years, Wrenn said. “It’s like a cellphone quality signal as opposed to that other VHF which is scratchy and at times you’re not going to hear it. You get interference a lot of times. There’s clarity and there’s multiple towers already in place so it’s not something that the county or any other municipality would have to maintain.”
The North Carolina State Highway Patrol maintains the Viper system and if there’s an issue with the tower the agency is automatically notified through its network. “It’s not 100 percent,” Wrenn said of the Viper system. “Nothing’s going to be 100 percent. But it’s guaranteed at almost 95 percent or better so if you’re not in a metal building it should work. We’ve tested them pretty much across the county and it’s a pretty solid system.”
Established at hospitals
Viper has already been established through the state level at hospitals with the Viper Medical Network, said Wrenn. “If we’re transporting to any hospital outside of the county as well as ECU North they all have the Viper Medical Network. Most of the surrounding counties around us are using it as well so if we’re running mutual aid with other counties we have interoperability with them. All the state agencies have been using it for years.”
The radios have encryption capabilities, Wrenn said. Most agencies, other than law enforcement, don’t encrypt.
Pulley said the Viper system will allow firefighters to talk to each agency instead of having the 911 center relay message.
The association is currently working on the procurement process, Cook said.
The association also paid the grant writer fees and the county will pay the 10 percent match, which commissioners approved during their December retreat last year.
Besides the clarity, Cook said the knobs of the Viper radios are made to be used with the thick gloves firefighters wear. The radios also have a top display so firefighters can see how to change channels.
Roanoke Rapids Fire Department Chief Jason Patrick said the Viper radios will help tremendously. “Our radios are not that old but they’re VHF and with the county and most of the agencies we deal with on a day to day basis going to Viper it helps to communicate with them earlier.”
The city had approved the purchase of 10 through American Rescue Plan Act funding, Patrick said.
The FEMA grant will allow the department to get closer to assuring that every firefighter has their own Viper radio. “The police department is planning to switch over and I believe EMS. With those two switching over and us not it would pose communication issues with us,” Patrick said. Receiving this grant helps all the fire departments in the county, Patrick said. “It’s not only true for us but like Chief Pulley in Darlington the county is switching so that would leave him out if it wasn’t for this grant.”
A step forward
Wrenn said the “step forward” in technology is an added bonus. “Each one of those radios has a unique identifier so if that radio was lost or misplaced we could have it cut off remotely so that nobody else had access to that system. Nobody can transmit on that radio system without being on an activated radio.”
There are also man-down capabilities that come installed as well as event channels so multiple agencies can communicate with the agencies at a scene.
Pulley said the radios will particularly help the Scotland Neck and Hobgood departments. “They have a different channel than we do so that will tie everybody together. We have mutual aid with Scotland Neck and Hobgood, Tillery, Enfield and Halifax. We have to turn over to their channel on the radio so I think those few on that end of the county will benefit. A lot of times we’re out there on 95 and it's not very good reception.”
Cook said without this grant there would be rural fire departments which would not be able to buy the amount the grant covers. “It would have been like one radio a year until we got enough for the departments.”
Patrick said Roanoke Rapids had applied for the grant for four straight years and was rejected.
“They look at doing (the grants) regionally so you’re doing it county-wide, you’re affecting a 50-some-thousand population versus if it was just the city of Roanoke Rapids it might affect 14-15 thousand. They’re looking at more bang for their buck basically.”
Wrenn said the Viper system has been identified as a main concern for years. “It’s not getting any easier to recruit volunteers so to be able to provide a radio, something that actually functions the way they need it to is just one less worry at the county level. To be able to get that at the county level hopefully it will help the functionality of the fire association. Being able to provide a radio that helps them do their jobs efficiently, I think it’s a real plus.”