By JB Clark
SALTILLO – Emergency responders and public safety officials in Lee County expect to have better communication connectivity and coverage with a new digital radio system.
The upgrade – which has been in the works in one stage or another for over a decade – will connect the many Lee County agencies with the state of Mississippi through the Mississippi Wireless Integrated Network and provide more complete coverage inside the county.
“There is a ridge of the north side of the county we have trouble communicating past,” said Lee County E911 Director Paul Harkins. “There are some valleys and hills on the east side going down to Nettleton that prove to be difficult. We also had in-building coverage that proved to be difficult on the old system. This system will improve those issues.”
The integration with the statewide network will give Lee County officials the ability to communicate with agencies like the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency in the event of a natural disaster or with other organizations during something as simple as a prisoner transport.
Harkins said connecting to MSWIN also helped to cut the cost of the $7,546,055 project in half since the MSWIN system was already established.
The previous system, which was installed in 1993, has been in a state of increasing disrepair for the last decade, according to Harkins, who called the old analog system inadequate and antiquated.
“This system gives us the best chance for recovery, best public safety coverage and the ability to inter-operate with other local agencies, other state agencies and federal agencies if we need to,” Harkins said.
Lee County Administrator Sean Thompson said the county began pricing new radio systems 12 years ago but the price tag of more than $20 million was prohibitive.
“The necessity for a new system was there 12 years ago, and we were trying to look at what could be done,” Thompson said. “If money was not an object, we would have upgraded then.”
The digital system will give dispatchers more customizability when communicating with the county’s many agencies.
Previously, dispatchers communicated with each agency on that agency’s frequency and often had to switch frequencies and repeat themselves to communicate with multiple agencies.
“If we have an event like the Elvis Festival, we can create an event group where each of the agencies and officers working that event can intercommunicate,” Harkins said. “They also have dynamic call groups where the dispatcher, on the fly, can put multiple agencies into one group so everyone can talk to each other.”
Thompson said the dynamic talk groups will come in handy when smaller agencies receive calls that will require backup.
“We can just go ahead and key in the Sheriff’s Office at the beginning of the call with a dynamic talk group,” Thompson said.
Lee County officials celebrated the new system with a ribbon-cutting at the communications center in Saltillo on Wednesday afternoon.
Lee County Communications officials are still working to replace and program about 1,300 analog radios with new digital radios but Harkins said the system is online and working.