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  • Last modified 16 days ago (April 5, 2018)

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Garbled amid the static

Journalists often are accused of focusing too much on negatives. So we’ll try this week to find the most positive thing we can say about the burgeoning ensemble of elected and appointed officials who each week star in the continuing dramatic farce known as Marion County government:

Kindergartners of the world owe them a favor. No longer must innocent (if sometimes misbehaving) young children bear the stigma of society’s stereotypical derision. When someone behaves in an immature, petulant manner, we no longer need to say, “You’re acting like a kindergartner.” We instead can say, “You’re acting like a county official.”

Sometimes when we write a story about something controversial, we ask a few disinterested people to read it first and give us their assessment of who’s the hero and who’s the jerk. It’s how we check to make sure we’re presenting both sides. Most issues, after all, aren’t black and white. No one should come out purely saint or sinner.

With this week’s story about petulant times for the county’s ambulance service, absolutely none of the key players came back appearing to be heroes; all were labeled jerks by our test readers. Grudgingly, we admit it feels that way to us, too. And we can only imagine what some business person, thinking of relocating to Marion County, might believe if he or she were following the story.

Still, that’s not what we want to write about this week. We want to write instead about yet another area, only tangentially related, in which county government seems to blithely throw money at problems: the new digital radios the county is using for police, fire, and ambulance communication.

We’re no experts on the nuances of the digital system compared to the county’s old analog system. But, nearly a decade ago, when an up and coming county official, now long gone for greener pastures, warned us this was coming, we knew enough to buy equipment that would be compatible, and we went onto the web to learn what else we could about the system.

The first thing we learned, many years ago, was that digital radios simply didn’t work with the old analog two-tone paging system the county employed to make sure volunteer firefighter and ambulance attendants everywhere didn’t have to be disturbed by routine calls that didn’t affect them. This was, in fact, a prime reason why other jurisdictions we talked to kept slimmed-down versions of the old analog systems for paging and saved big time by buying expensive digital radios only for vehicles that volunteers would reach after being paged.

Marion County decided on the more expensive route, then expressed surprise when two-tone paging didn’t work as it used to. It also discovered just a few weeks ago something else that we learned years ago: that backup cell-phone paging is equally flawed, with urgent messages often delayed for precious minutes or even hours.

Officials seem intent on blaming dispatchers’ consoles, saying the consoles don’t have capacity to reach separate groups. But that appears to represent a fundamental misunderstanding of how the system works. The new system uses just half-a-dozen total frequencies, with one transmitter and one antenna able to access all of them. An inaudible signal hidden in each transmission determines who actually receives it, much as audible two-tone paging used to do with the old analog system. Only certain radios receive the signals because they are in specified “talkgroup” or because the transmission was targeted at that individual radio’s unique ID number.

Again, we’re no experts on any of this — although we have documented in recent weeks the individual IDs of more than 400 separate radios in use in the county. But we find, doing a simple search for the specification sheets for dispatcher consoles, that one of the most commonly cited bragging points is that, from a single console, dispatchers can send to multiple different “talkgroups” or collections of individual radios. You don’t need a separate console for each, yet that appears to be precisely what the county is preparing to throw yet more money at — provided it can find space for additional consoles.

Perhaps one of the reasons we end up with so much acrimony in county government is that no one — elected or appointed — seems to fully understand and appreciate how things work. More to the point, they often seem incapable of determining what they would buy if they actually had to pay for the equipment or staffing themselves. When taxpayers — either local or distant, if grants are involved — foot the bill, it’s just a matter of shoveling money at problems as fast as possible. And when money starts getting tight, tempers start to flare.

Would having a county administrator fix this? Maybe, if the administrator actually knew his or her job and would be listened to by commissioners who seem intent on micromanaging during meetings or engaging in almost surreptitious scheming with appointees outside of meetings.

Whether with radios or ambulances, the problem is a serious lack of communication. And the victims are those of us who pay the bills.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified April 5, 2018

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