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Frustration mounts over lack of solution for Hawkins' failing emergency radio system

Jeff Bobo • Jun 25, 2020 at 6:00 PM

ROGERSVILLE — After six months with no solution for Hawkins County’s failing emergency radio system, the county commission’s Public Safety Committee tried to take the initiative last week by hiring a company that was fired earlier this year by Mayor Jim Lee to repair the existing system.

During a June 17 meeting, the Public Safety Committee voted 5-1 with one abstention to rehire AMK Services to return the existing radio system to the level at which it was operating prior to a series of three system shutdowns that occurred in November, December and January.

That system serves all fire, rescue and EMS personnel in Hawkins County, as well as the sheriff’s office and all city police departments except for Rogersville.

Lee had previously terminated the contract with AMK Services and stated that he would not work with the company again.

“Don't fuss at me, son”

The panel’s decision to rehire AMK sparked a heated exchange between Lee and Public Safety Committee Chairman Dawson Fields.

Lee told Fields the decision to rehire the company “put the lives of all county safety personnel in danger.”

Fields: “No I didn’t, and you’re not going to put that monkey on my back, Mayor Lee.”

Lee: “You’re talking about something you know nothing about.”

Fields: (Banging gavel) “You’re out of order. Don’t talk any more. Don’t fuss at me, son.”

Lee: “You know nothing about it.”

Fields: “No I don’t, but we’ve been waiting for six months to have some kind of plan.”

Operating on backup equipment

The committee’s decision was to hire AMK Services at a cost not to exceed $30,000 to repair the radio system.

Prior to the three system failures beginning in November, there was communication throughout the county, although there were quite a few dead spots, particularly around Clinch Mountain and other mountainous areas.

Since the third failure in January, the radio system has been operating on backup equipment. There are now larger areas without service, and safety personnel on opposite sides of the county can’t communicate directly with each other.

“They refused to put any solution on the table”

Lee had previously stated that the contract with AMK was terminated because the company didn’t respond promptly to the county’s radio failures.

Emergency Management Agency Director Jamie Miller told the committee on June 17, “I begged these people to talk to me for a week. Any solution on the table. Money is no object. Give us a solution. That was echoed to them multiple times. They refused. They refused to put any solution on the table. Last time I talked to them, I told them not to call me back until they had a solution. I’ve not heard from them since.”

Fields told the committee on June 17, however, that he had been in contact with AMK, which stated it could restore the existing system to its pre-November level of service.

In approving the AMK motion, Fields made it clear that this is a temporary solution to improve what’s available now, while continuing the ongoing process of finding a permanent solution. So far the committee has been presented with two other options: installing the state safety radio system (TACN) and installing a DMR (digital mobile radio) system.

Repair resolution not heard by commission

On Monday, the full county commission was presented with an out-of-order resolution to restore the radio service contract with AMK because the June 17 Public Safety Committee vote occurred too late to get the resolution on the regular June agenda.

A unanimous vote is required to hear out-of-order resolutions, but there were three nay votes including committee members John Metz and Tom Kern. Kern cast the only no vote during the June 17 committee meeting.

Lee told the Times News on Wednesday that there is a committee meeting set for July 15.

“I am meeting with another company from Knoxville Monday morning,” he said on Wednesday. “We should have another quote for the commission by Friday or Monday. We need to do this the right way and not keep patching the system. This radio problem has been going on for years and not months.”

Mixed messages about potential solutions

Part of the county commission’s frustration with the process is the mixed messages it has received about potential solutions.

At first the Public Safety Committee was told the TACN system, which is used by the Tennessee Department of Safety including the Tennessee Highway Patrol, was the best solution. Later the panel was told TACN had too many dead spots.

On June 17, TACN was presented as a viable option again, although it’s probably cost prohibitive. The system is estimated at $4.53 million, plus $165,000 recurring costs each year, as well as the cost of two new required antenna sites.

Similarly, a DMR (digital mobile radio) system was previously presented as a good, more cost-efficient option, but was later dismissed due to complications that would arise in acquiring the necessary frequencies for a DMR system.

On June 17, the panel was addressed by a Virginia-based company that said it could make a DMR system work in Hawkins County for approximately $970,114.

However, those two company representatives were involved in a serious vehicle accident on Monday in Virginia and likely won’t be able to work with Hawkins County.

Hawkins County has applied for a $250,000 imminent danger Community Development Block Grant to help pay for a radio system solution. The overall grant would be $322,000 with a $72,000 local match.

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