Dead air during recent fatal accident highlights need for Wise River station

Casey S. Elliott
Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Wise River emergency officials pressed for haste in getting a radio repeater site in the area up and running soon last week, noting a recent fatal accident call could not be heard or responded to locally because of the lack.

Beaverhead County officials have been trying to set up a radio repeater station on U.S. Forest Service land for the tower since January 2019. Wise River emergency officials have had trouble hearing dispatched calls, often forcing volunteers to staff the fire hall to serve as a go-between.

The hold up is a process for approval in the forest service’s hands, county Geographical Information Systems (GIS) Coordinator Tracy Sawyer said at the committee’s July 20 meeting. That process requires approvals from different agencies before any work to install communications equipment can take place. The current approval needed requires a consultation with tribal nations, Sawyer said.

911 committee member and Wise River fire district representative Cindy Sorich said this latest issue was compounded – radio traffic, long distance and cell phone service all failed at the same time, leaving only local telephone service available. To get around it, emergency services representatives called all the “high risk” individuals in the community and told them if there’s an emergency to call the fire hall.

The 911 committee previously authorized $20,000 to pay for the radio improvements; all it needs is the forest service go-ahead to start work. Officials had hoped to get that handled before the ground froze this year.

Sawyer said he will continue to try and impress upon the urgency of the issue to forest service officials to get the process moving; Sorich said she also intends to contact the forest service.

The committee also received updates on the process for upgrading the 911 center’s dispatch and records management systems. The county received two grants totaling $230,000 to update the dispatch center, the backup dispatch station, and the county’s Computer Aided Dispatch (CAD) system. The upgrade is progressing, though the full system update may wait until after the Labor Day weekend, Sheriff Paul Craft said. The hardware improvements are getting set up in another location, and need to be tested before they can be installed so there are no issues when that happens.

The next 911 committee meeting is scheduled for October.