By Mark Waite
When Tonopah volunteer firefighter John Campbell noticed a power line fell down, hit a phone line and caused an electrical fire on some brush and timber behind his house a couple of weeks ago, he called 911.
“It knocked the power out too. I called 911 and they said they weren’t able to dispatch because the computer was out. I said fine, I got to get the fire out, so I went, got a truck to put the fire out,” Campbell said.
Campbell told the story to a fellow Tonopah Rotarian, county Commissioner Joni Eastley, who recounted it at the Tuesday commissioner’s meeting.
“It kind of filled the house with smoke. He called dispatch to have a fire truck dispatched to his property to get some assistance and he was told we can’t do that because dispatch is down, because the communication system wasn’t working so they had no way to dispatch a fire truck to this man’s home. So thank goodness he’s a volunteer fireman, he simply drove down to the new fire station on Main Street, went into the barn, got a fire truck and took it up to his house himself,” Eastley said.
Nye County Director of Information Technology Mark Hatfield, in a report to commissioners Tuesday, said a trunked radio system in Tonopah has been turned off for approximately four months, a telephone pole holding one of the transmit antennas fell over. The antenna was moved to a different telephone pole and fell off again, he said. It was never replaced.
“That site had been out of service for about five months now. The question is whose responsibility is it, is it a county responsibility or is it a Motorola responsibility?” Hatfield asked.
County commissioners signed a $172,784 annual contract with Motorola in March to maintain their Smart Zone system.
A repeater site on Mount Brock is the primary channel for the Tonopah dispatchers under the conventional system since the trunked radio system is out of service, but Hatfield said Tonopah dispatch loses communication with this site during power outages.
Campbell said the manager of the power company, a firefighter, showed up to help put out the fire.
“If it was you calling and saying I have a house fire or I have a heart attack and the dispatcher said my computer is down I can’t dispatch, what are you going to do? Lay there and die? Or if your house is burning you’re just screwed. Apparently it’s done that before. I was just fortunate enough I’ve been around fire trucks for years so it’s not that big a deal for me. But for somebody who can’t get in the building or doesn’t know anything about it, it’s a serious thing and we do pay a lot of money on our taxes for a 911 system,” Campbell said.
Nye County Commissioner Lorinda Wichman recalled an incident in Gabbs where a Nye County sheriff’s deputy couldn’t access his cell phone for help while handling a physical altercation.
Hatfield’s report said a repeater site for the conventional system just east of Mina in Mineral County provides radio coverage for Gabbs, but Tonopah dispatchers said the site hasn’t worked correctly for six years. The antenna may need to be moved to a higher tower, he said.
The Nye County Sheriff’s Office has been working on improving its communications system for years, including a $3.4 million lease purchase of a trunk system from Motorola in 2005 designed to enable Nye County sheriff’s deputies to communicate between places like Tonopah and Pahrump through mountain top repeaters.
Nye County Sheriff Tony DeMeo, just back from a vacation Wednesday night, was upset nobody contacted the sheriff’s department about the incidents before the commissioners’ meeting. County officials put the I.T. director in charge of the sheriff’s radio communications system before he left on vacation, DeMeo said.
The new trunking system is for a microwave system to link Tonopah, Beatty and Pahrump, which the county was able to expand to Warm Springs and Smoky Valley, DeMeo said.
“The issue with the radio system not working in Tonopah is a fallacy because basically we have three radio systems; we have the trunking system, we have conventional and we have local,” the sheriff said.
Hatfield’s report to county commissioners Tuesday indicated there are still lots of problems with the repeater sites. Eastley said she was “shocked and appalled” to see photographs of a Johnnie repeater site. Hatfield reported the antenna and cable at the Johnnie site were bad and needed to be replaced.
When it comes to the new trunked system in Beatty, Hatfield reported a microwave link between the Beatty Courthouse and Sawtooth Mountain fails on a regular basis, causing Beatty dispatch to lose communications on the trunked radio system and all network connectivity to be lost.
The Smoky Valley system is working, but Hatfield said Tonopah dispatch reported portable radios don’t have good coverage. There is also an $855 monthly charge for the T1 line between Tonopah and the Hadley sheriff’s substation.
The trunked radio system has never been turned on in Amargosa Valley, Hatfield said. The control channel is on the same frequency as the Pahrump conventional dispatch channel and causes interference in Pahrump, he said.
In Pahrump, Hatfield said there are two VHF simulcast sites, the VHF radio system receives significant interference from Valley Electric Association power lines and is unusable in many parts of town. Nye County has borrowed portable radios from Clark County for testing, he said.
When it comes to the conventional system, Hatfield said a radio at the Montezuma repeater site stopped working four years ago and hasn’t been replaced, limiting radio coverage on Highway 95 between Beatty and Tonopah.
Eastley asked Hatfield if he needed more county staff to provide technical work on the ground or whether the county should hire a contractor. Hatfield promised a more complete report soon.
“Each one of these sites needs significant amount of work and there are significant issues that need to be addressed as far as this system,” Hatfield said.
DeMeo said the county hasn’t supported his previous requests to upgrade radio communications. They agreed to buy new sheriff’s vehicles, but with old analog radios, what he equated to buying a new car with retread tires.
DeMeo said instead of putting in $325,000 repeater stations on mountain tops, the county could put a $2,500 repeater system in each patrol car that would boost the amperage on the deputies radios to 100 watts so they can easily talk to dispatch. But DeMeo said his request fell on deaf ears.
In the case of the Gabbs deputy, DeMeo said the trunking system can’t be extended to that part of the county. He said cell phone service in the area is unreliable. In any event, DeMeo said it would’ve taken Gabbs deputy Jeff Stark an hour to get backup to handle the altercation, which fortunately local residents helped subdue in an incident that occurred several months ago.
“My concern has always been for the rural deputies. There is no backup,” DeMeo said.
The I.T. director also alerted commissioners to a Jan. 1 deadline by the Federal Communications Commission that all land radio mobile systems be narrow banded.
“That is a big project and we’re nowhere near being in compliance with it,” he said. “This is going to be tens of thousands of dollars worth of corrections.”
The FCC can levy a fine of up to $10,000 per day for a violation and Nye County has 47 frequencies, Hatfield said afterwards.
County commissioners signed a $21,629 agreement with Frontier Communications last March to bring the Nye County radio system into compliance with the FCC mandate.