‘We do have a life-safety issue when the volunteers don’t get the calls’
At the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors monthly meeting on Wednesday afternoon, the board discussed the impacts of the county’s lack of adequate telecommunications infrastructure on public safety, including issues with radio communication and phone service.
Scott Tangeman, director of public safety at L3Harris — the contracted system that the county’s fire-and-rescue services use to communicate with each other — came to address some of the concerns mentioned at the board’s previous meeting.
At the board’s June meeting, the public comment section was dominated by county fire and rescue volunteers complaining about the pager system, which notifies volunteers of emergencies, and they played a recording of an unintelligible call for the board members.
L3Harris will implement a 30-day program to make software updates and work through other remaining problems, with the goal of having most of the issues resolved by mid-August. The purpose of the program, Tangeman said, is to give customers confidence in the software by the end of the 30-day period.
Jackson District Supervisor Ron Frazier said that just before the Wednesday meeting, he was notified that the volunteer fire and rescue in Amissville was not receiving calls and their transmissions were garbled.
“So as of today, 12 noon, they can’t use them at all,” Frazier said of the pagers. “They don’t use them, they don't rely on them. So we do have a life-safety issue when the volunteers don’t get the calls.”
Tangeman responded that he was unaware of any current issue with the pager that would create a public safety concern. But, Washington Volunteer Fire and Rescue Chief Jonathan Bankston said that the difficulties in communicating is a life-safety issue. He said that because there are no radio towers in Rappahannock County, they have to rely on the towers in neighboring counties.
“We're relying off other towers outside the county and we have hills, valleys, things like that ... but it is a life safety issue for us when I was at a fire where we didn’t have communication,” Bankston said.
Bankston said the pager system has gotten better, but there are still other significant issues in communicating. Tangeman said they’re still working through GPS issues, software upgrades, and other remaining pager issues.
“I hope you all know that we made a choice to go with you,” Piedmont Supervisor Christine Smith said of the Harris pager company. “And it was not a unanimous decision. There were people that encouraged us to go with other providers. And so I really hope you will provide the service that we selected you to do in a way that we selected you to deliver it.”
At the board’s August meeting, the company will detail what they found during the 30-day period, including specific information as to what the problems were, how they were resolved, and what problems with the system still remain.
At the Fire Levy Board’s July 13 meeting, Sean Polster, who was recently hired as Rappahannock County’s emergency services/management coordinator, gave an update on his first impressions on the county’s emergency services operations.
Polster acknowledged that the radio system is a “major problem,” and that over the next month, his team will call upon field technicians, engineers and scientists to help address the technical issues.
Another problem Polster found was the fact that the mobile radios used by emergency responders are different across the region, making it problematic in emergency situations if the responder isn’t familiar with the type of device they’re using. He said that he thinks having a common operating picture is important, referring to the fact that some responders use Motorola mobile radios and others use the Harris radios.
“We should all be on the same page for everything that we do,” Polster said.
The lack of infrastructure to support broader capabilities has been a long-standing issue in Rappahannock County. Hampton Supervisor Keir Whitson said he heard from two of his constituents in Harris Hollow that after spending time in the hospital, they came home to find that their landline telephone wouldn’t connect to service provided by CenturyLink. Whitson said this poses obvious safety issues, if a person cannot dial 9-1-1 for medical assistance.
County Administrator Garrey Curry said that this is a “historic problem,” but the board has been able to identify a couple of people at CenturyLink who have tried to address concerns.
Whitson said it seems like the telephone service in Harris Hollow is worse than any other location in the county, and he would like to see more resources in that area to update the infrastructure, such as finding public dollars to invest in better infrastructure.
“I'm not talking about general fund money,” Whitson said. “I'm talking about creatively going out there and trying to find some public dollars available generally for this type of infrastructure improvement and see if we can fix this. It is out of control.”
Other notable actions
The board will hold a public hearing on Aug. 2 to adjust Land Use Validation application fees from $7 a parcel to $10 a parcel at the request of the Commissioner of Revenue (COR). The Land Use Validation application allows for landowners to have their properties assessed in order to claim they use their land for low-intensity uses, like farming or forestry. If the claim is validated, then the COR can assign a value less than the market value, resulting in lower real estate taxes.
The board voted to adjust the fee in 2015, which was put into effect after the motion, but the action was never properly advertised and there was never a public hearing.
The board also voted to end the local state of emergency that was declared at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The resolution ending the declaration states that “the Rappahannock County Board of Supervisors finds that all necessary emergency actions have been taken and it is appropriate to end the declaration of a local state of emergency confirmed by Board resolution on April 2, 2020.”
The board will hold a separate meeting to discuss funds granted to the county by the American Rescue Plan Act. During this meeting, the board will look at what projects the funds are eligible for, and what the timeline for spending those funds will look like.