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Fire siren debate focuses on county radio system

Shenandoah County Fire and Rescue Chief Gary Yew holds a cell phone displaying a text message of a mock call that was placed by their dispatch center on Thursday. The county is testing using a volunteer's cell phone as a means of dispatching fire and rescue calls. Rich Cooley/Daily

This is Shenandoah County's communications tower for the Zepp repeater located on North Mountain west of Maurertown. The tower serves law enforcement and fire and rescue calls in Northern Shenandoah County. Rich Cooley/Daily

By Joe Beck

The debate over the future of Strasburg's fire siren also has raised questions about how well Shenandoah County's telecommunications system works in the town.

Fire department officials spent part of a town meeting Wednesday explaining to about 70 residents that the embattled siren provides important insurance against the spotty performance of pagers used to notify volunteer firefighters of an emergency.

Fire Chief Jeff Wharton and Fire Department President David Hupp said the pagers often fail to respond to radio signals, thereby leaving the siren as the only reliable way for firefighters to learn when they're needed. Wharton and Hupp repeatedly cited uncertainty about the pagers as a major reason for keeping the siren, despite complaints by some residents that it is too noisy, and the time has come for a change.

"We've had a lot of dead spots. It's hit or miss," Hupp said about the pagers.

Shenandoah County Fire Chief Gary Yew said Thursday that he had not heard of any problems with the pagers in Strasburg until a reporter asked him about it. No one from Strasburg has complained to him, he said.

"The only complaint we've gotten is from the New Market Fire Department," Yew said. "Within their station, communication was poor, and pagers did not activate."

He said New Market's problem has since been fixed by adding internal antennas to increase signal strength to that community.

Yew said a small stretch of U.S. 55 west of Strasburg is the only telecommunications weak spot he is aware of around the town. The Department of Fire and Rescue has wanted to install a repeater on a mountain west of Strasburg to fix the problem, but the estimated cost of $100,000 to $150,000 has proved too high for the county's budget in recent years.

Yew said it remains a priority in the department's long-term capital expenditure budget and will be submitted to the county Board of Supervisors for consideration in the new fiscal year.

Repeaters are towers placed in three locations in the county that amplify radio signals as they are transmitted to fire and police departments. The three are found near Mauertown, Conicville and Fort Valley.

Strasburg's Police Department reported no problems with the radio system it relies on for receiving emergency dispatch messages.

"We don't have any issues," Chief Tim Sutherly said.

Sutherly added that a change in radio frequency two or three years ago has weakened the signal and generated static, but not enough to prevent officers from hearing calls.

Yew said police department communications receive a boost from a repeater the town operates separately from the county.

"That aids the police, but it has no ties to fire and rescue," Yew said of the repeater.

Firefighters throughout the county may soon have an additional way of being notified of emergencies.

Yew said he hopes a new feature to the radio system will be added "in a couple months" that will allow firefighters to receive text messages. The project, which is in a testing stage, does not require any new staff or equipment, but some equipment will have to be modified, Yew said.

He said initial tests conducted Thursday "seemed to work pretty well."

"We're working with Sprint and folks like that to determine if any cost is incurred for anything like this," Yew said. "We've also got to make sure everything is going to work with the computer-aided dispatch in the (communications) center."

Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or jbeck@nvdaily.com


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