The Greene County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved Dec. 10 a new $5.9 million public safety project first presented to the board on Nov. 26.
“We actually began these discussions at the regional level in 2014 between Greene, Madison, Louisa, Fluvanna, Charlottesville and Albemarle,” said Melissa Meador, emergency services director for Greene. “Then we had an incident in April 2015 where we had a near line-of-duty death with one of our members from Stanardsville Volunteer Fire Department. I think it was probably during that time frame that the board kind of sat up and said, ‘I think we have a problem here’.”
In April 2015 Dusty Clay was trapped inside an engulfed building trying to make a mayday call and having no luck—all within site of the Stanardsville radio tower near the courthouse.
“It’s frustrating sometimes that it takes something like that to really grab the attention of people,” she said. “If it had been someone less experienced in firefighting there is no doubt in my mind we would have had a line-of-duty death that day. He suffered burns, his gear melted, his helmet melted, his radio melted.”
Meador said the new radio system has been in the county’s capital improvement plan since at least 2009 when she came to Greene County.
“This was obviously a huge important project that got approved,” Meador said. “I think is going to enhance our entire Emergency Response System, from top to bottom. Anything that benefits our public safety personnel in turn is going to benefit our community.”
In fiscal year 2018, the county hired Black & Veatch to begin a needs assessment for the county, beginning in August 2017, she said. In August 2018 the second phase of the project began with board approval to create the technical document for the 2,500 individual requirements for the project.
In September 2019, Motorola returned a nearly 1,300-page proposal for a shared system with Madison and Greene counties that provides for 95% coverage throughout the county with both radios and with mobiles, including into Shenandoah National Park in Greene County because of the entrance on U.S. Route 33 in Greene.
With the current system, dispatchers have had to ask people to leave a building or go to their car radios so they can understand what the first-responder is saying, which can create an unsafe scene if the responder’s attention is taken away.
Monroe Supervisor David Cox asked Motorola at the Nov. 26 meeting what financing options were available. Meador told the board Dec. 10 she recommends the two-year first payment deferral which has an interest rate of 3.34% over 15 years.
“In theory, with this two-year deferral, our first payment may not even be due until after the system is online. This is, in my opinion, advantageous for us because it provides us an opportunity to explore grants, explore multiple grants and have conversations with tower companies that may be interested in building our towers for us,” Meador said. “And if we are successful in these endeavors like we’re hoping, we can also restructure our financing with Motorola prior to that first payment even being due.”
Madison County was expected to approve the system at its Dec. 18 meeting, after press time.
“I know it’s expensive. I know it’s an expensive endeavor,” Meador said. “But, we really have not had any major infrastructure upgrades since they put the system in in the 1980s. If we (keep up) with the maintenance schedule, Greene should never be in this position again where they’re looking at an $8-10 million radio system project.”
The design of the system is based on the Association of Public Safety Communications Officials standard called Product 25, which allows for communications with other systems, and will contain five tower sites. Even though the system is designed as a regional system with Madison County, the hub—or the brain—will be located in Greene.
“The system roams, meaning it just bounces off of whichever tower’s closest,” she said. “And our deputies and our fire personnel don’t actually have to physically turn knobs to get to the closest tower that they may be at at that particular moment in time. The system is going to do that automatically.”
The system also has no single point of failure, said Jeremy Thomas with Motorola.
Meador said she feels the county did its due diligence in getting this project under way.
“We recognize the cost, believe me. But my counterpart in Madison and I are really going to try to hit grants hard and we’re working with tower companies and cell phone providers to try to offset some of this at the local level,” she said.
Cox motioned to approve the purchase of the system and Midway Supervisor Marie Durrer seconded.
“We need this. We’ve been waiting a long time for it. We’ve done our work and our due diligence. Now let’s make it happen,” said Chair Bill Martin, Stanardsville.
Meador said the volunteers at the fire department and other first-responders are grateful the need is being met, and she hopes it spurs interest in more volunteers for the fire and rescue departments.
“I hate to sound cliché, but it means the world to them, it really means their lives with what they’re doing,” Meador said. “The radio system and their equipment are truly their lifelines. And having a board that is supportive, I just can’t stress how important that is to them. It shows them the board cares and the board values them and their service.”
All three fire departments in Greene County are still 100% volunteer run and all three are looking for volunteers.
“If you don’t want to run the trucks, we can still find a job for you, whether it’s auxiliary or paperwork or something. Just reach out,” Meador said. “And we’re looking everywhere for potential grants, if anyone has any insights on grant programs you think might fit the radio system or other emergency services equipment.”