911 Story of the Year in Page County

The Shenandoah Fire Department was called out to a house fire at 809 5th Ave. in Shenandoah Wednesday evening at 4:58 p.m. The fire was started by a kerosene heater in the living room of the home. The fire department was on the scene for approximately two hours.

The following two paragraphs from a July 2010 Herald-Journal story could easily be called the first step in what has turned out to be a more-than-eight-years and $2 million 911 project. And it’s expected to be turned on next month.

“The Page County E911 Commission announced on Wednesday, July 14, it will proceed with the purchase of the necessary equipment to upgrade both the Clarinda and Shenandoah emergency dispatch centers to narrowband radio communications.

However, following meetings between the Page County Board of Supervisors and city officials from Clarinda and Shenandoah, a five-year plan was also announced to study the possibility of transitioning to one dispatch center for the county,” states the story.

            County officials also transitioned into a digital-based 911 service – but that was not known at the time.

Watching that transition develops is why 911 was the Clarinda Herald-Journal Story of the Year for 2018.

During that 2010 meeting, Shenandoah Mayor Dick Hunt asked Clarinda Police Chief Keith Brothers to review the five-year plan.

Brothers said the county is unique in having two dispatch centers, as one was in Clarinda and another in Shenandoah, but it is probably inevitable that costs will require the county to switch to one center.

Brothers was almost prophetic with his answer.

“However, transitioning to one is going to take a great deal of planning and thought and effort and a lot of coordination between Page County and the two cities,” he said.

Planning, thought, effort and coordination would accompany all involved over the next eight years.

The story stated the ideas that will be explored over the next five years include building a new facility or expanding a current facility.

The former was part of the history of the development of digital 911.

Brothers’ crystal ball then was spot on.

 “We need take it slowly, give everybody a chance to study it and talk to a lot of different experts,” Brothers said. “We owe it to the citizens of Page County to do our due diligence.”

In 2010 Page County Board of Supervisors proceeded with the sale of $520,000 in General Obligation bonds to finance the purchase of the radios and dispatch equipment needed for the mandated switch to the use of narrowband radio frequencies. Narrowbanding would also cause some trouble for 911 dispatch.

But the merger of Clarinda’s and Shenandoah’s 911 call centers, and the development of digital 911 system, was not immediately researched after that meeting.

Page County Sheriff Lyle Palmer reminded county officials of that five-year plan in early 2013. In 2010, the committee of the sheriff, Clarinda and Shenandoah police chiefs and supervisor chairman were to figure out a plan to have one center in the next five years.

“The committee was formed with the bond issue, but the committee has not met because they still want two centers,” said former county supervisor Jim Richardson in 2013. “I fear we will jump the gun and are playing with rumors. That is not a good place to be,” he said about the concerns from the existing centers.

Palmer said if a single call center is developed, he suggested it have its own budget and management. Palmer suggested the center should be on county-owned property to avoid paying other entities.

County officials reviewed and chose an architect to build a building for 911 operations. Shenandoah, the county landfill and other places in the county offered space for the building site.

The proposal was for it to be located on vacant, county-owned property beside the sheriff’s office and jail in Clarinda. But the bids for construction were more than what the county wanted to pay – even after revisions were made to the plans to help lower costs.

But that acceptable dollar amount was never reached.

Agreements were made in 2015 with the city of Clarinda to place the merged 911 center in the Clarinda Public Safety Center – the lower level of the Clarinda Police Department.

            Just in case

            Palmer has worked with the county’s 911 system since his first job as a part-time jailer in 1990.

            “We did radio checks in the middle of the night. We would just contact one of the deputies on patrol. This was before cell phones. We had good reception as it could reach across the county. They worked well,” he said.

            A radio check is as simple as that – dispatch contacts a deputy on patrol just to make sure the radio works and both sides can hear each other.

            But the system did have its tendencies.

            “Weather did affect them. Humidity changed them. But in severe cold, it was not a problem. It probably worked better when it was cold. But if the humidity was high, there would be a lot of static and skip,” he said.

            By the end of that decade, Palmer said the radios were fine, but those involved learned of the dead spots – the places in the county where 911 communication struggled, or just didn’t happen.

            “There are dead spots south of College Springs and east of Braddyville. North and east of Essex and there are spots south of Northboro. The spots are not a 10 feet by 10 feet, I mean maybe 50 by 50 or 100 by 100,” he said.

            Palmer said it wasn’t just open spaces either where communication never followed through.

            “Shenandoah has had them in buildings – metal buildings. Essex City Hall is another spot. You learn where they are at by trial-and-error,” he said.

            Over time and experience, Palmer said deputies and 911 dispatchers know where the dead spots are located.

            “You have to overcome,” he said. “You know you are going to radio out there. Hopefully a dispatcher understands an officer could be near a dead spot. That’s why radio checks are important.”

            Radio checks and dead spots have their importance at certain times.

            “Say there is a high-speed chase, you can lose communication,” Palmer said. That can cause some fear as you don’t know if the pursuing agency is in a dead spot, has crashed their car and can’t respond, or the suspect wrecks,” he said.

            Those moments are why the Page County Sheriff patrol vehicles are equipped with GPS (global positioning system) devices. Page County dispatchers can track the cars’ GPS. Palmer can follow the GPS through a computer program he has at home.

            “Even that has dead spots, but if it comes out of a dead spot, the GPS signal returns,” Palmer said. “It’s about officer safety and it also helps the dispatcher. You can find a car if they are not answering the radio.”

            Palmer said Page County can have the best law enforcement, ambulance services and firefighters, but they are not effective without a reliable communication system.

            “A team is only good as its weakest link. If the weakest link is communication, it’s a sad situation. But it is something that can be fixed,” he said.

            Palmer won’t deny getting 911 communications improved in Page County has been a challenge.

            “It’s tough. Getting this implemented, you are stretching your head on a chopping block and hope it gets done right,” he said.

            Find a way

            What the Clarinda Fire Department and its volunteer members will use in the new system is worlds away from how they once communicated.

            “Not everyone had a walkie-talkie,” said Fire Chief Roger Williams about his early days of working in the fire department in the 1980s. “An officer had a radio. Firemen did not have a radio. The officer was communicating but the firemen were in the house. We did that for years.”

            The firemen would yell about the situation inside the house to those on the outside, provided they could hear.

            “Inside a house, things go bad, you can talk,” Williams said about the working firemen. “If you wanted to talk to someone while you are fighting a fire, or if you are inside a house and the hose goes bad, or whatever, you had to yell.”

            The fire department did not get radios for the firemen until 2007.

            “We wanted it so everyone could talk,” he said. “Since then it has been good. We go to a car wreck and need to direct traffic, two guys can do that and do traffic control. At a fire, outside, the pump operator has to hear. You can say if the ladder truck has to move.”

            Williams said he can’t believe how the department did without a communication system for so long.

            “We have to be able to communicate. We have alarms on airpacks, but to say when a partner is out of air, or if something fell, we have the radios. I don’t want to leave with someone getting hurt or killed. Guys will do whatever they have to save somebody. That’s their job.”

            The fire chief since 1992 said narrowbanding changed the department.

            “Perfectly good radios had to be thrown away. We had no choice,” he said. The conditions, or locations, also added to the challenge.

            “We always had dead spots or a storm took out the power to 911. We would switch to cell phones and talk to dispatch. We still had to tell them if there were sparks at this house, or a branch was done here. We made do. We always found a way around it.”

Getting something done

            Page County Supervisor Chuck Morris watched the discussion and development of acquiring a new 911 communication system as a news reporter for KMA Radio.

            But his perspective, and involvement, changed once he ran for, and won, a supervisor seat in 2016.

            “It was a hot topic. There was a lot of division on how to fix our aging system. When the county hired Tusa Consulting and its representative Jack Hart, even though he was a senior consultant, his experience was in analog,” Morris said.

            Tusa offers assistance with communication equipment.

            Page County was well aware of the high-tech world of digital communication equipment. Morris said former county communications director Marvin McClarnon, whose position was created during the research for the new system, was not in favor of a digital system mainly because of cost.

            “Hart convinced the supervisors we could build an analog system costing up to $900,000. That was the path we were on,” Morris said. “There was still a lot of controversy. The digital people were saying, ‘You are foolish. Why build an antiquated system?’ People on the sidelines were taking potshots at that approach. It didn’t deter the process of getting bids.”

            The bid in early 2017 showed analog was not $700,000 as an analog project was almost double that amount.

            “So it was back to the drawing board,” Morris said. “The approach had been exhaustive and divisive. The solution wasn’t a solution.”

            Morris said he was disappointed in Tusa, who had forecast the analog bid to be near $70,000.

            “How could we be that far off with bids,” Morris asked. “We didn’t want to go alone. We didn’t have the expertise with this. We had plenty on our plate, but not enough expertise to build a radio system.”

            Things started to change in early 2017. McClarnon, who was approved for the communications positon in 2015, resigned. Shenandoah Police Chief Kris Grebert was hired to replace McClarnon.

            Motorola offered a digital system bid, even though the county never formally requested one during its bid process for analog.

            “Foolish to invest $1.3 million into a system that has an expiration date,” Morris said about analog. “Motorola was aggressive with a radio plan for $1.9 million. Anyone who has purchased a personal computer knows it’s outdated when you get it out of the box.”

            Just deciding to go digital was just one part of the process.

            The original plan did not include purchasing radios for non-county emergency response agencies.

            “The county has never purchased a radio for fire departments or ambulances since they are not county functions. My fear is since the county owns the system, and is responsible, if we don’t support those agencies in some manner we have some significant liability,” Morris said.

            Grebert met with each emergency service agency in the county to review what is needed.  Supervisors were split on approving the county to purchase radios for all the emergency service agencies that will use 911. Supervisor Jon Herzberg voted no.

            “Today, that is still a good decision. For example, the town of Coin can’t flip enough pancakes to get their radios,” Morris said about the smaller towns in the county and their financial limitations.

            Morris said there are many people who deserve to be recognized in acquiring the 911 system like former Clarinda Mayor Gordon Kokenge and former Essex Mayor Russ Hilker.

            “A lot of people put in a lot of time and service to find a solution and took heat from other people,” Morris said. He added the project was benefited greatly by Southwest Iowa Rural Water and Hough Communications for the use of their towers to place equipment.

            During his campaign in 2016, Morris said he heard a significant amount of discussion and criticism about the future of 911 in the county.

            “We have an antiquated system and responders are at risk every time they go out,” Morris said. “Some spots have limited service. If the wrong component breaks, we are out of luck since some of those things are no longer manufactured.”

            Having a reliable system provides a level of comfort.

            “When it comes to public safety, we have no options. No one wants to be with a loved one in an emergency situation and not get the help they need. The system wasn’t efficient. It becomes more personal for people,” he said.

            On both sides

            During his time in law enforcement, Page County Communications Director Kris Grebert remembers a classic example of the struggles of 911 communications.

            “I responded to an injury accident in front of the Casey’s in Shenandoah on Highway 59. I was calling in telling them what we needed. They couldn’t hear me,” he said.

            Like what other emergency response staff has done before, Grebert had to improvise.

            “I had to take the radio off and hold it high in the air. Then they heard,” he said.

            Since April 2017, Grebert has been on the other side of the communication equation. That’s when he was named communication director replacing Marvin McClarnon who resigned.

            Not only has Grebert had to finish the project, but he has had to learn what dispatchers do since he has answered 911 calls.

            His time in law enforcement, he knew what dispatchers needed from the responding agency.

            “It’s different now. I was used to being in the car with the information and doing stuff. Now, I provide the information. It’s a mental challenge, but a nice challenge since I haven’t done it before,” he said. “Now I have to ask about the number of cars involved, if it was a car accident, how many people are involved, if the fire department is needed and if the fire departments need assistance.”

            Page County averages five, 911 calls per day according Grebert’s recent statistics. Last year, the office received more than 1,400 calls.

            Knowing what it’s like as a police officer is what Grebert said was his motivation to want the county communications positon. His prior position was Shenandoah Police Chief. His career also had him as police officers in Essex and Clarinda.

            “I’ve worked with multiple agencies in the county. I know the frustration (with the troubles related to 911). I’ve worked with this side of the county and that side of the county. Let me take this job and I can get it fixed,” he said.

            Sees the benefit          

            Clarinda Police Chief Keith Brothers said his department assisting with another emergency service provider outside of Clarinda does happen, but is encouraged the new system won’t be a challenge.

            “For us, in Clarinda, our coverage won’t notice a huge difference. But there will be a major change and greater ability to deal with multiple situations, simultaneously,” he said.

            Emergency-service providers always face the risk of multiple situations and 911 dispatch keeping track.

            “Say you have an officer at a traffic stop and a fire at a house. Each will have a separate channel,” Brothers said. “We won’t be fighting for air space. And if the sheriff or a deputy is in Coin, they will have a frequency. We won’t be walking all over each other.”

            Brothers started his work in Clarinda in 1982. The radio channels then were simple as one was for police department, fire department, city operations and mutual aid, where other departments can communicate.

            Radio communication via VHF has been in use for many years and Brothers said it will be used in the future. The Federal Communications Commission mandated what was called narrowbanding. That went into effect in 2013.

            Some analog equipment was able to convert to narrowbanding. Other equipment was not, but did not require owners to convert to a digital format.

            “Other frequencies were added and the airwaves became crowded,” he said about narrowbanding. “On the positive side, it did allow for more frequencies. But you had to give up to get something. It reduced coverage area quite a bit. It was not a huge impact on us, but we’re a small town. It did have an impact on rural areas,” Brothers said.

            Brothers used the phrase “walking over each other” as the problem with the 911 dispatch equipment in the past. Some messages interrupted others, or interrupted them so much, some messages were never heard.

            “There hasn’t been a loss of live over it,” Brothers said. “Hopefully the new system will prevent that from happening. The benefit will be the people in the rural areas and remote areas. They should get very reliable communications.”

            Even Brothers is waiting for his benefits of the new system.

            “I’ll be able to take my portable if I’m in Dubuque and call this dispatch center,” he said. “The digital system works like a cell phone.”

            Brothers said all the people involved with the project learned a lot.

            “Nobody was an expert in this,” he said. “It has a lot of moving parts. It’s probably the longest project in Clarinda history. A lot of money is at play. We may wear different colored uniforms, but we all do this for the increase in coverage and reliability for those in the rural area. That’s the biggest driver.”

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