Two weekend searches point to needed radio upgrades

BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
PCC EDITOR

LEE COUNTY – A push to upgrade county emergency responder radio equipment came into full view over the holiday weekend.

Two searched were conducted along Lee County’s borders with Missouri along the Des Moines River, and according to Lee County Sheriff Stacy Weber, both times communications proved difficult for rescue personnel.

On Thursday, about 70 people scoured the banks of the Des Moines River near the Belfast Road railroad intersection looking for 57-year-old Jacob Pezley of Argyle.

Twenty minutes into the search Pezley’s body was recovered at the foot of a railroad bridge after an apparent fall. But during the search Lee County Sheriff’s deputies had to result to what’s called “Sheriff’s Talk” on the radio, which is a frequency that deputies can revert to for internal communications within about six city blocks.

Weber said that radio traffic can’t be picked up by others with hand held scanners, or other emergency responders. The area being searched is also devoid of cell-phone coverage so deputy cell phones were of no use either.

On Sunday evening and into Monday morning, Missouri emergency responders, and then Iowa rescue personnel were called to search for a man who apparently had fallen asleep in his boat and grounded it on an embankment Sunday evening.

When the man didn’t show up where he told friends he would be, they started their own search. After those efforts proved futile, emergency crews from Missouri and Iowa were called for assistance.

Crews on the Missouri side started looking for the man after the boat was reported being seen on the Missouri side of the river on an embankment.

Weber said shortly after midnight Iowa authorities were brought into the search. At about 3:45 a.m. Monday morning, the man had found his way back to his parents home and the search was called off.

Weber said despite the happy ending for that search, communications still hampered the search.

“It’s the same story on all of our borders. Every border we have on our count, with the exception of some of Henry County is defined by a water way. If you look at a topographical map you’ll see most of those are low lying areas,” Weber said.

“There was a time when you could kind of get away with it, but with the narrow banding of frequencies you just can’t hear anymore. Sometimes you can hear dispatch or someone, but they can’t hear you. It’s just a very helpless feeling.”

Officials in Lee County are in the middle of a request for proposals to get the entire county transitioned to a digital radio system that would guarantee 95% coverage of the entire county. The cost of the project is being estimated at $7 million and would be paid through an emergency management tax levy.

Weber said he hopes to have the whole project completed in the next 18 to 24 months. He said Lee County is lagging behind others in the state.

Just after midnight Monday morning, Weber was at the Turkey Run Access in Belfast Road in extreme southern Lee Countty, while agencies from Clark County, Mo., Van Buren County, Keokuk Emergency Corp volunteers and the Iowa Dept. of Natural Resources headed into the area, and communications were very poor.

“I’m standing there early Monday morning with a group of different agencies and we’re conducting a joint mission and at no time could all of us talk to each other,” Weber said.

He said both of the searches were critical searches with lives on the line.

“We’re not being much of a service if we can’t do the things that were supposed to do out there,” he said. “If we can’t communicate, the things we do aren’t protective.”

He said the problem with using things like Sheriff Talk and Mutual aid frequencies is that sometimes he’s not working with deputies but with other agencies and that communication is critical on joint missions.

And many times when deputies are in the low lying areas, communication with them is difficult and that can be ineffective and scary.

“You know me and this organization we run here and if there’s one thing we do it’s trying to be efficient and effective with the things we do. It’s getting to the point where we can’t talk on our radios, and we become more dependent on our cellphone, and in both of these cases even that didn’t work.”

Weber said bid letting on the project is set for late June after Requests for Proposals have been considered and reviewed.

Fort Madison Fire Chief Joey Herren spent much of February and March making presentations to local city councils and townships on the importance of transitioning to digital. Herren said there are times when his shoulder-mounted radio can’t reach firefighters inside a burning building.

Fort Madison Police ran into some communication issues inside a local manufacturer during an active shooter situation earlier this year.

The Lee County Board of Supervisors would have to approve any levy through county emergency management to help pay of the project.

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