911 calls hampered by weak signals

New towers needed to improve communications in outlying areas

BY JANEL STEPHENS



EAST MANATEE -- When 911 calls from rural east county come into the Manatee emergency communications center, dispatchers try to contact deputies and firefighters. But sometimes all they hear is static.

In remote areas and the county's beach cities, emergency workers struggle to communicate with dispatchers and each other during emergencies. Calling for backup by radio can be impossible.

Radio contact is fuzzy or disappears altogether in areas like Duette, Myakka City and western communities such as Holmes Beach, Bradenton Beach and Anna Maria Island. Those areas are too far from the three Manatee County public safety radio towers to get a clear signal.

Myakka City Battalion Capt. Danny Cacchiotti recalled a recent vehicle accident where he had problems contacting dispatch.

"I was unable to talk to them on the radio, so I used my phone," said Cacchiotti, who becomes fire chief April 1.

Firefighters in his district use VHF radios and their cell phones as a backup to the radios, Cacchiotti said.

The problem has been going on for years, but it's getting worse because the rural areas of the county are growing so fast. That means more emergencies where efficient communication is required.

Even Duette, a remote northeast Manatee town of 1,000 scattered residents, averages about two emergency calls a week, said Chief Jim Leonard of the Duette Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department.

Leonard, whose district covers 210 square miles, said the department's radio problems have been a constant for years.

"It seems to come and go. It's always a problem at some point," he said.

Leonard said authorities find radios so unreliable they have turned to VHF walkie-talkies as backup.

"They work better for us out here," Leonard said.

Manatee County commissioners thought they alleviated the problem in 2003 when they committed $3,750,181 to erect three new radio towers.

But the expansion was delayed when the county focused on replacing the main radio tower in downtown Bradenton, said county spokeswoman Diane Frenz.

Frenz said two of the three proposed radio towers will be in Duette and Myakka City. A location for the third tower is still being sought.

"We just got a permit for the Myakka tower; we hope to have it up and operational in June," Frenz said.

Cacchiotti was pleased to hear the new tower will be ready soon.

The county's 800 megahertz radio system has been . . . as been used by all emergency agencies in the county for 18 years. The American Red Cross, the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and the county's 10 fire districts are among the 45 agencies that use the system county-wide. About 3,000 radios use the system, Frenz said.

Leonard said the addition of the new towers coupled with an upgrade of the department's radios should solve the problem.

Cacchiotti sees the new system as a necessity in his growing 230-square-mile district. The new radio tower would not only allow firefighters to communicate with each other but also with the 911 center. He said the radio tower will be handy if immediate backup is needed.

"We'll be able to call them and they can send help right away," he said.