Wooster reacts to county's options for dispatch service

Leaders from the city of Wooster, who decided to form their own solution for the dispatching and communications pieces of their safety services, attended a meeting held by county officials.

Joe Villegas, director of the Wayne County Emergency Management Agency, reviewed the findings from a study performed by Mission Critical Partners on the county's communications system and potential fixes.

The July 14 meeting involved first responders and public officials, and some leaders signaled the best way forward might be tapping into a statewide system.

Villegas said the county-wide radio system has been a priority ever since he took the job. A radio system was built around 2006-2007, before his tenure, but it was never completely built out.

Over the years, many fixes were put into place, but Villegas said he would rather look at a new system before putting more money into existing infrastructure, which he likened to "feeling around in the dark."

The report commissioned by the county illustrated coverage gaps, paging problems and narrow-banding efforts. The current system is at capacity, and there is no room for growth over the next five to 10 years.

An inexpensive fix is to increase the height of the tower in Wooster, but it will only improve coverage by 8 percent, according to the report. Overall, the county has about 50 percent reliable coverage.

The general sense from the meeting was joining the MARCS system --Multi-Agency Radio Communications System -- would be the most beneficial fix.

Darryl Anderson, MARCS program director and Killbuck resident, said the state has made a major upgrade to the system, and it will be able to accommodate every first responder in Ohio. There are two MARCS towers in the county, in Burbank and at the State Highway Patrol Post on U.S. Route 250 east of Wooster.

Commissioner Ann Obrecht said the county would commit to adding two more MARCS sites on towers in New Pittsburg and Apple Creek if the first responders and public officials agree the statewide system is the way to go.

Wooster Fire Chief Barry Saley, who sat on a focus group established by the county to hear input on the radio issue, said the county's desires for interoperability and working together is too little too late.

"We saw the same problems," Saley said, when Wooster and Ashland decided to create a Regional Council of Governments to address communication issues. And he said those two cities' leaders "took the bull by the horns" to address the problems, while the Wayne County commissioners balked at joining the WARCOG and helped to fund a study on the dispatching component.

"The desire of the WARCOG is to have (the county) as partners," Saley said. "They are essentially stating they don't want to (partner with us)."

Assistant Fire Chief Nathan Murphy added, "The county was all for the COG until they weren't in control," and is now trying to emulate the same goals and spirit in which the COG was intended.

Saley and Wooster Director of Administration Joel Montgomery said the WARCOG is reviewing all of its options for radio equipment and a communication system. They are "leaning" toward the MARCS system.

Orrville Mayor Dave Handwerk, the third city to join the WARCOG for dispatching, said during the meeting he is a proponent of collaborating to solve the communications issue.

"I think it'd be fabulous to have everyone on the same system," he said.

Jason Waddell, senior agent with the Medway Drug Enforcement Agency, said the agency already is on the MARCS system and spoke highly of it.

"When they work, it's crystal clear," he said, recalling a time he spoke over a MARCS radio while in Wooster to a colleague training in Lorain. "We were talking like we were next to each other."

He contrasted to times when he worked for the Wooster Police Department and he had struggles hearing someone over a radio while standing on the other side of a door from one another.

A part of the meeting also focused on grant funding available through the State Fire Marshal's Office and cost controls through MARCS. Saley noted those grants don't work for cities like Wooster and are instead aimed at rural, volunteer fire departments.

"We have to look outside of the box," Saley said, for alternative funding sources.

Wooster Mayor Bob Breneman and Montgomery said the city has been looking at all options, including MARCS. About a month ago, Montgomery reached out to Villegas about the possibility of working together on a grant.

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