The best option for the city of Morristown to improve its emergency communication network would be a combination of transferring to the state system, while also transitioning to LTE Broadband/WiFi radios for first responders, a consultant said.
“It’s a win-win to have a combination of the state system and LTE Broadband,” said David Purkey, former Hamblen County mayor and state Commissioner of Safety & Homeland Security.
Purkey made his comments during a city workshop held Thursday morning at the city’s Public Works Department. He was hired in December at a cost of $7,200 to take a look at the city’s 45-year-old emergency communications network and make suggestions on improvements.
Purkey told councilmembers and city staff that there are four options the city could look at.
1. Transitioning to the state system, called the Tennessee Advanced Communication Network or TACN, and upgrading to LTE Broadband radios.
2. Going with FirstNet/ATT LTE Broadband with a push-to-talk option
3. Building the city’s own system
4. Digitization of the current system
The city is considering replacing its current system, which is almost 45 years old.
Purkey said the city’s current Communications Technician Steve Peoples has saved the city money for several years by patching up the current communications network, but he is also the only person in the city at this time who has the knowledge to repair it and keep it continuing.
If Peoples retires, it could possibly put the city’s emergency communication network in jeopardy, he said.
Morristown Police Chief Roger Overholt said the police department has wanted to upgrade the system for years, going back to 2014 when the city first made a budget proposal for a new system.
“How we are going to pay has always been a major concern,” City Manager Tony Cox said.
There are options available that weren’t available in previous years to help mitigate the costs, Purkey said.
Hamblen County piggybacks on the city’s system and has agreed that if the city does upgrade it would share in the costs, Purkey said.
There could be money from the COVID stimulus package that could be used to reimburse costs.
Finally, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said this week he wants all state Emergency Medical Systems personnel on TACN and will propose in next year’s budget money to pay for the transfer.
Cox agreed that this could be the time if the city wanted to do an upgrade.
“We need to seize the opportunity while we can,” he said.
Purkey said if the city did not go the route of using the state TACN system and radio upgrade the other options have issues.
First, the city building its own system already has a problem.
“We’re on our own system now and looking for other options,” he said.
The problem with FirstNet is that it relies solely on cell phone towers with no radio tower usage.
The last option of digitization of the current system would occur if the city and county switched to the LTE Broadband radios.
If the city did switch to the state system there would be up front costs, Purkey said.
First, the city, with possibly county support, would have to connect the system through a radio tower and build out the station.
There are currently three towers within the area in Greeneville and Hawkins and Cocke counties that could give additional support. But for the best coverage a tower would need to be designated in Hamblen County.
Purkey said he and state officials found the best area for the tower would be on Statem Gap Hill, just off state Route 160, which is the second highest point in the county.
He said there are currently five radio towers on the hill and the city could connect to a tower it already owns.
Another great advantage for using the LTE Broadband radios would be that they are able to breach through most walls to reach a communications provider. The radios are programmed to look for the nearest cell tower if radio is not available and can also be connected to WiFi if neither are available.
He said first responders throughout the city and county conducted numerous tests and found only a few areas of dead zones. But in all those dead zones Wi-Fi was available, such as at Meadowview Middle School.
Bill Hale, the city’s fire marshal, described to councilmembers the frustrations of having no communication. He said he and others went to Gatlinburg to help with the wildfires a few years ago.
While at Gatlinburg-Pittman High School they had communication, but as soon as they left it went dead. But, those first responders who were using TACN were able to still communicate.
“There’s no scarier feeling than having no communication,” Hale said.
The city will start looking at the costs associated with upgrading and city officials said it could be part of the city’s 2021-2022 budget, which will be presented next month.