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Update: First responders having issues getting emergency calls

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GREENVILLE, N.C. - In a story 9 On Your Side first told you about on Monday, first responders in Pitt County are having trouble receiving and understanding emergency calls. All this, after a system upgrade.

Turns out these issues have been going on for more than a year, before county commissioners were notified.

For almost a year, first responders in Pitt County have had issues with their pagers and radios.
When they alerted their superiors, they were told the system is working fine.
"Every time they come to my station, I'm being told it's operating within specs,” said Michael Dickens, Fountain Fire Chief.  “It's within the contract, it's operating within specs."

"You can stand in this location and not get a signal,” said Virgil O'Neal, Bell Arthur Fire Chief. “You can walk 10 foot this way and get a signal and that counts as an approved area."

After six months of no responses or solutions, five fire departments in the western part of Pitt County banded together.
In December, they showed up at the county commissioners meeting to express their concerns.
Turns out, some of the commissioners were told the system is working fine.
County Manager Scott Elliot says the county is working hard to fix the problem.

" The Pitt County Board of Commissioners has hired  a third party independent consulting firm to come in  and take a look at what was designed, what was implemented, to figure out why the system is not performing in certain areas of the county, or the county over all," said Scott Elliot, Pitt County Manager.
"We're the ones that have to protect the citizens on the fire and EMS side,” said Lee Keel, Farmville Fire Chief. “And if we don't holler, nobody's going to holler, because no one else knows. "

The fire fighters say since that commissioner's meeting in December they are optimistic about their problems getting fixed.
The county is set to conduct a study of the issues in the next few weeks.    
9 On Your Side will continue to update you as this story unfolds.

--- Original Story ---

A system upgrade is making emergency calls to Pitt County first responders more difficult to receive. 

In 2012 the county started  to make upgrades to their radios and pagers to meet the new Federal Communication Commission’s signal guidelines.  Since those upgrades were made, emergency crews in the western part of the county started having issues with receiving and understanding the dispatch pages that tell them where to go and what to expect.

“We had a call Tuesday, [hwy] 43 had a fatality. I had members to call me after everything was over wondering what went on. They didn't get notified. They didn't get paged," said  Falkland Fire Chief William Proctor.

“Sometimes all you hear is a beep and scratch on the pager, which is all you're going to hear. You don't know where to go. You don't what else is going on,” said Fountain Fire Chief, Michael Dickens.

The firefighters say the reduced frequency for the paging system is not strong enough to reach most volunteers' pagers inside buildings.
As a result of the frequency issues the pagers may not go off. An occurrence that has forced a lot of the firefighters to rely on a text message sent out by the 911 center.

"Without the pagers, the guys don't have a clue what is going on. Right now they are relying on the text messages. Text messages come in minutes after the call, if not hours after the call," said Dickens.

To help alleviate the problem a few fire departments have subscribed to a text messaging service that sends texts to cell phones. However, this is only a temporary solution since the money to pay for the service comes out the fire departments' budgets.

The paging problems are the only issues the fire departments are having since the upgrade. In 2013 the county also upgraded its radio system. Unfortunately, the radios work like cell phones and rely on a signal from a tower to work properly.  As a result, the further a radio is from the two county towers in Greenville and Winterville the more likely it is to have a weak signal.

"The radio system, though--it's hit and miss. If you can't hit that tower, you can't talk to somebody standing beside you. That's the reason you are not getting any penetration inside buildings," said Farmville Fire Chief Lee Keel. It’s a signal problem that is crucial when emergency crews are trying to talk to each other while in burning buildings or at medical emergencies.

“EMS is having a problem with them in Fountain.  If I go into a house with that radio, and the county can't hear me and I get hurt, I'm on my own. [There are] no other firemen outside to help me, or anybody to help me, because nobody can hear me," said Sharp Point Assistant Chief  of EMS Earl Peaden.

In December, after months of voicing their frustrations, a group of fire districts took their concerns to Pitt County Commissioners.

For more on this investigation, tune into 9 On Your Side’s on Tuesday.
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