County works to end radio problems
By Gale M. Bradford
WEATHERFORD -- There are dead spots in Parker County -- areas in the 900 square miles of varied terrain where sheriff's deputies, firefighters and other emergency personnel cannot communicate with the dispatcher or one another.
Those dead spots could kill you, said Deputy Randy Branum, who has been in at least two life- threatening situations in two years because he couldn't raise help on his radio.
To complicate matters, dispatchers have separate pieces of equipment and microphones to communicate with different county agencies, including firefighters, sheriff's deputies and constables.
County officials agree that an updated and expanded dispatcher system is the answer to a problem that endangers the lives of public servants and residents. Officials thought they had resolved at least some of the problems in September when county commissioners purchased a system to consolidate dispatcher equipment. And county commissioners budgeted $500,000 this year to install more antennas and another communication tower to help eliminate the dead spots.
However, the new dispatcher system hasn't been installed, and most of the $500,000 hasn't been spent. Initially, Parker County commissioners and the sheriff argued about who should operate the dispatcher system. And, last week, Texas Rangers seized the equipment, accusing a vendor of misrepresenting what the equipment can do. For example, according to the affidavit submitted by the Rangers to get a search warrant, the two consoles are supposed to provide 18 channels each, but can only accommodate up to 12.
Two months ago, commissioners advertised for bids to add another tower and antennas, but no bids were submitted. Now the county is following a recommendation to hire a consultant to draw up better specifications for the project, further delaying it.
Emergency personnel say they are frustrated and in peril.
"It's just hit or miss," Branum said of the county's communication system. "You never know if your radios will work. We make jokes about smoke signals being more effective."
During a routine traffic stop in 1999, Branum said, he called the dispatcher but couldn't raise a response. Branum said he walked up to the truck anyway, and the driver sped off.
"The truck fishtailed and slid sideways and knocked me into the highway," he said. "I got up and was in pursuit of him for at least five miles."
When the pickup pulled into a driveway, several people surrounded Branum's patrol car. He said he pulled his gun, arrested the pickup driver and took him to jail. "And the dispatcher never even knew that I'd made a traffic stop," Branum said. "That's how bad the communication system is."
In the summer of 2000, Branum said, an intoxicated man fought when the deputy tried to handcuff him. Branum said he tussled with the man unassisted for 20 minutes before he received help.
"Every few minutes, when I could get him pinned down good enough, I'd grab my radio, hold it high for better elevation, and yell for help, but dispatch still didn't hear," Branum said.
A Parker County constable traveling about three miles away heard Branum's distress call and responded, he said.
Last year, Parker County commissioners appropriated $53,000 to purchase dispatcher equipment but decided that the county administration, not the sheriff, should operate the system. Brown disagreed.
This year, the Commissioners Court changed directions and decided to leave the dispatching duties to the sheriff. When workers began installation, however, they discovered that they had the wrong equipment. Desperate, Brown said he was willing to work with that.
Acting on tips that the system didn't meet specifications, the Texas Rangers seized the equipment last week and began a criminal investigation of the vendor, Communication Sales and Service. Named in the warrant is Charles Beard, who operates the company.
Beard's daughter-in-law, Melinda, told commissioners Monday that the 50-year-old Weatherford business engaged in no deceptive practices. She accused elected officials of spending tax money on a "witch hunt and character assassination for personal gain."
The company supplies much of the county's communications equipment, from personal pagers to police radios. The company also contracts to maintain the equipment.
Communication Sales has been called in several times to modify the equipment to get rid of the dead spots. In the past year, Charles Beard has told county commissioners that the dead spots have been eliminated, but county emergency personnel say something different.
County Judge Mark Riley said in a recent interview, "I have personally ridden with sheriff's deputies to the northeast part of the county, and they have taken me to the dead spots where they cannot communicate. And, it's not just one or two spots. ... We've been told that they don't exist anymore, and that's just not true."
County workers improvise when their equipment fails them. Deputy Tim Oglesby said that during a six- or seven-minute fight with a suspect, he lost his gun and couldn't raise help over the radio.
"It got to the point I just hit him with [the radio] just as hard as I could, and it worked better as a weapon than it did as a radio," Oglesby said.
Fire Chief George Teague said firefighters often carry personal cellphones because they can't be sure that their radios will work.
Parker County agencies are a major part of the area's disaster response plan, but cities can't always be sure that they can contact the Sheriff's Department and other emergency personnel, Teague said.
"If we had a disaster, there's not a channel that Parker County could go to to talk to each other -- and talk clearly so we could understand each other," he said. "That's a necessity."