BLADEN COUNTY, NC (WECT) - Losing a cell signal can be frustrating, but for emergency responders, it can be a life or death situation.
Leaders in Bladen County said it’s harder for first responders to communicate in some areas on their radio system, Voice Interoperability Plan for Emergency Responders (VIPER).
Hurricane Florence highlighted these issues, but they’ve been reported for a while now. According to Captain Jeffrey Singletary with the Bladen County Sheriff’s Office, VIPER is built to give 95 percent coverage on the street level, but it’s not great for indoor use, and that’s the trouble.
“I live here and I have family here and I want to make sure that if they need emergency medical services or fire services that the word gets out," Singletary said. "As long as I have any influence over the system, I’m not going to have anything out there that’s going to be not where it can’t alert or let first responders respond.”
The sheriff’s office partnered with the North Carolina State Highway Patrol in 1994 to launch VIPER. After emergency responders voiced concerns about VIPER coverage following Hurricane Florence, Ray Britt, the chairman of the Bladen County Board of Commissioners, sent a letter to the Highway Patrol asking for coverage to be checked out.
Technicians analyzed the areas in question, and concluded the VIPER communication’s 95 percent coverage is met in these areas, but buildings “diminish radio connectivity greatly.” State Highway Patrol officials recommended the county build a taller cell tower to improve communication.
The sheriff’s office was working on a backup radio system for VIPER called Bladen County Alternative Telecommunications System (BCATS) before Florence and the first site for this system has been built.
BCATS will be a secondary system if VIPER goes down or gets overloaded. Singletary said there’s never going to be 100 percent coverage everywhere, but he doesn’t want people to worry about help not getting to them in an emergency because of the issues.
According to Britt, commissioners will have to look into the issues and costs before deciding if they’ll build another cell tower.The county has three VIPER towers.
Singletary and Emergency Services Director Bradley Kinlaw said they’re not quite sure how much a new tower will help, but they won’t turn down extra aid.
“For our fire and EMS folks, everything we do depends on communications, so the system that Captain Singletary has helped build out is wonderful and we’re going to continue to improve on it," Kinlaw said. "There’s always going to be issues and we fight issues every month, most of them minor, but there’s always going to be issues.”
Singletary said plans are to build BCATS across the county.