For years, the Stanley Volunteer Fire Department has been the only department in Gaston County that dispatches its firefighters through its own emergency response system.
Now town officials are saying they want to change that by joining the countywide system. That will mean paying their share of a countywide, six-year, $7 million emergency response system upgrade. But Stanley's participation should improve fire response throughout northeast Gaston County.
Firefighters, rescue squads and law enforcement officers have been buying new radios so the agencies can communicate better during a crisis. The communication improvements may also help residents qualify for lower homeowner insurance rates, said Gaston Fire Marshal Jim Pharr.
Stanley is the only town fire department that has not contributed to the countywide upgrade. Joining the new system will mean deleting a step in the dispatching process. Currently, if a Stanley resident dials 911 to report a fire, the call is relayed to the Stanley dispatcher, who then alerts firefighters.
"We take the information. Then pick up the phone, call Stanley and verbally give their dispatcher all the information," said Lloyd Moskowitz, director of 911 communications for Gaston County.
Under the countywide system, Stanley firefighters would be dispatched to fires directly by the 911 operators in Gastonia, and computers in the countywide communications center would automatically alert the closest backup units.
That could speed up the volunteer fire department's response time to Stanley fires and to calls for back up in neighboring cities like Mount Holly, town officials said. It should also speed up aid to Stanley from neighboring departments.
"They're going to speed things up because it removes a link from the chain," Moskowitz said. "If they have a major incident and need additional fire engines or engines to cover their firehouse, being on the same frequency reduces reaction time. And when it comes to fires, anything you can do that saves a second is worthwhile."
If Stanley joins now, the city will be asked to contribute $30,000, which will decrease other departments' final payments, Pharr said. The county paid about $5 million, or 72 percent, of the $7 million cost. Cities, towns and fire and rescue departments contributed the rest, Pharr said.
Stanley Town Manager Ed Humphries said the Town Council still has to vote on whether to join the county system.
He said Stanley already has a mutual aid agreement with the Gaston County Fire Association, which represents 25 fire departments. There is some concern that becoming part of the countywide dispatch system will increase the number of incidents Stanley's volunteer firefighters are called to, Humphries said.
"But we get more help than we probably give," he said.
Already, fire departments and rescue units throughout the county have received better radios because of the countywide upgrade. Stanley's $30,000 contribution would include the cost of new radios for its firefighters.
The county started broadcasting from two towers instead of one on Thursday, using a different type of transmitter to comply with changes mandated by the Federal Communication Commission, Moskowitz said.
And in the next two years Gaston County Police, the Sheriff's Office and Animal Control will receive about $2.4 million in upgraded radios and mobile data terminals.
The mobile data terminals allow police officers to log into criminal data systems from their patrol cars.
Pharr said better communication between law enforcement and other agencies could help firefighters or paramedics get to some scenes faster. For example, law enforcement often begins blocking traffic for accidents on Interstate 85 before fire or rescue personnel arrive. Pharr said better radio communication would allow law enforcement to tell rescue workers the quickest route to the scene.
Pharr said the federal government informed fire and rescue officials in the mid 1990s that they should upgrade their systems by 2005. The events of Sept. 11 highlighted the need for improved communication systems; not all rescue workers could communicate with one another, and some radios malfunctioned.
"The Gaston fire system had radios from about the 1980s" before starting its upgrade, Pharr said. "We said let's get ahead of the curve and redo the whole system. This should help us during major incidents."