Tuesday, April 13, 1999

Tornado renews debate about communications system

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Communication restores order when chaos reigns. The killer tornado Friday claimed four lives, ripped apart hundreds of homes and stole peace of mind for thousands of people. And the twister did one more thing: it highlighted the deficiencies of an emergency communication system from a bygone era, officials say.

        Hamilton County's communications system is pushing 50 years old. It is supposed to allow police, fire and ambulance personnel to talk with one another and with the dispatch center in Colerain Township during emergencies.

        But experts say the system becomes easily overloaded and, in the wake of massive tragedies like last week's tornado, will lock out many of the radio transmissions that need to take place.

        Voters will decide on May 4 whether they are willing to pay for a new system designed to cure those ills.

        Issue 3 on the ballot would tax homeowners $31 per year for four years to pay for the $63.7 million system.

        Opponents of the new tax agree the current system is outdated and needs to be replaced. But, they say, a new tax is not the best way to pay for it.

        So the debate will rage right up to election day.

Stopped by police
        Steve Ashbrock's men aren't used to being stopped by the police.

        Mr. Ashbrock is chief of the Reading Fire Department and commissioner of the Hamilton County Urban Search and Rescue Task Force.

        His men are used to breezing through devastation in order to pull people out of leveled houses or crumbling apartments.

        But on the way to Montgomery Friday, his men were stopped at every police checkpoint along the way because word did not get to police officers on the street to let them pass.

        “We were having trouble getting through to someone who could do something about it,” Mr. Ashbrock said. “That type of communication is essential. It either doesn't happen, or doesn't happen quickly enough with the current system.”

        Officials in Blue Ash finally set up a courier system to solve their communication problems, having a runner take messages from the communication center to the field.

        “That leads to time delays and misinformation, and that is exactly the opposite of what you should have,” said Bill Hinkle, director of the Hamilton County Communications Center.

        “I don't care what disaster you pick — the World Trade Center bombing or Oklahoma City — every time you sift through the problems it always comes back to communication,” he said.

        If approved, the four-year levy would pay for a digital communication system straight out of the 1980s. But the system is the most up-to-date technology available and is being installed in counties all over the country. If approved, it will take four years to get the system up and running, Mr. Hinkle said.

        The system offers a host of benefits, officials say, including:

        • Better penetration into buildings. Officials often complain about weak signals or static overpowering the voice on the line.

        • The system is less likely to become log-jammed with transmissions because a computer automatically scans for and patches transmission through on open lines.

        • Digital communication, which allows for new services such as the transmission of maps or floor plans of buildings while police or firefighters are en route.

        • Different departments will be able to communicate with one another, which is not possible under the current system, and that will help coordination during disasters.

        Indian River County on the east coast of Florida went to an 800 megahertz system from one similar to Hamilton County's in 1997. Suzanne Runge, a radiological analyst for the county, said it has been a smashing success.

        “It gives everyone in the county the ability to talk with one another,” she said. “People can pick up the radio and know someone will hear them when they talk.”

        Tom Brinkman, Jr. agrees with all that.

Nex tax opposed
        But Mr. Brinkman, director of the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST), does not think a new tax is the best way to pay for the system.

        Mr. Brinkman said the tornado could have an impact on the levy, but still believes it will be turned down by voters.

        A similar levy has twice before been defeated at the polls, although in both instances it was attached to other issues such as jail expansion.

        Mr. Brinkman says the county has a $43 million surplus; it has passed 10 special levies previously, which are still active; and has raised taxes 84 percent since 1983; and county payroll has increased 43 percent since 1991 while population has dropped.

        “Why don't they take that $43 million surplus that we've already paid them?” Mr. Brinkman asked. “That would go a long way toward paying for the whole thing. That is a very big concern for us.”

        Hamilton County Auditor Dusty Rhodes confirmed that the county does have a $43 million surplus. But Tom Neyer, president of the Hamilton County Commission, said that money should not be spent.

        Mr. Neyer said the county needs to keep $20 million in the bank to receive good interest rates when it applies for loans, and the other $20 million should be saved for a rainy day:

        “That supposed surplus is a balance in our checking account — just like most people strive to maintain one in their own.”

        But none of that matters to Mary Meno.

        The 47-year-old Symmes Township woman and her family survived the tornado but their home in the Pennington Run subdivision was destroyed. Communication is priceless when the walls come crashing down, she said.

        “We're lucky to be alive,” Mrs. Meno said. “We're okay, we're safe, our animals are saved but we'll never be the same. Everything has changed around us.”


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- Tornado renews debate about communications system
Some see '99 as a peak year for tornadoes
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