"I am happy to say that the tower is up, and the antennas are on top of it. Within the next month, we'll be operational," County Judge David Sherrill said, as he updated Quorum Court members at their June 5 meeting.
The new tower on Easley Mountain is 160-foot high, and sits an additional 20-foot higher because of where it is located on the mountain. The new tower will replace an old one, a short distance away, which the county has leased for years from a private company. The old tower is in poor physical condition and has outdated equipment, which makes it difficult for first responders and county road crews to communicate by radio -- something vital during emergencies.
While the county has known for years that it needed to upgrade its communications equipment to meet new federal standards which take effect Jan. 1, 2013, getting the job done was never made a priority.
The county's current, outdated communication system was inadequate or down completely during much of the 2010 ice storm, when emergency and road crews were trying to reopen roads and assist people stranded in their homes.
Those problems led to new talk of upgrading the system -- an issue that Sherrill inherited when he took office in Jan. 2011.
Sherrill's Emergency Management Director, Bill Beebe, learned it could cost up to $300,000 to install a new communications system -- and he could not find grant programs to help cover the cost.
Sherrill and Beebe thought, after a meeting with Governor Mike Beebe last summer, that the county would get a substantial grant from the Office of Rural Development.
The county located a used cellular tower for sale in Mississippi, that came with a building to house equipment, for the bargain price of $155,000.
But the state grant fell through, and it was back to the drawing board.
Judge Sherrill said the county would have to go with what he called a "hillbilly solution" -- installing a portable tower on Easley Mountain to get into compliance with the federal regulations. Doing nothing by Jan. 1 could lead to a federal fine of $165,000.
In May, Quorum Court passed an ordinance allocating $60,000 for the new communication system effort.
After working with Wallace Towers of Franklin, Ark., the judge bought a new 160-foot portable tower. The county bought a piece of land on the mountain, and county workers prepared the site for the new tower.
After a concrete pad was poured, a small block building was added to hold communications equipment, and Wallace Towers went to work. The company drove large I-beams into the ground, and put up the tower with three antennas attached to receive calls. The tower is securely held in place by guy wires attached to the I-beams, and cables run from the antennas to radio equipment to be installed inside the building.
Sherrill told the court that Gary Bridgemen, who owns a communications tower in northern Izard County, allowed the county to put an antenna 400-foot up on his tower for free. That will help insure that the northern part of the county, which has been a problem spot, will have good radio coverage.
A final upgrade will be a large generator, which will sit under a roof outside the tower building, and kick on in six seconds should the tower lose power.
"That generator is important. We used to have to bring a portable generator during a power outage, and it is not easy to get up the mountain in bad weather," Sherrill told The News. "Last summer, we lost power when every fire department in the county was busy fighting 12 grass fires. Two firefighters were injured, and we were without radio communications for five hours."
During the Quorum Court meeting, Sherrill twice praised North Arkansas Electric for helping the county get a grant to pay for the generator.
"We want to thank North Arkansas Electric for their assistance with that $10,000 grant for the generator," Sherrill told Justices of the Peace. "That's the only money we actually got to help us with this communications system."
According to Sherrill, he has spent $45,000 of the $60,000 appropriated for the project. Despite the low price, he believes a quality communications system has been put together -- and will be up and running well before the Jan. 1 deadline.
"We're trying to target October of this year to switch everything over to narrow band," Beebe told J-Ps. Once work to hook up electricity to the tower is completed, Sherrill will finish buying narrow band radio systems for road department vehicles, and a grant should be approved to buy one additional radio for the sheriff's department. Since most fire departments are ready to switch to narrow band, the new system will be ready for use.
"All first responders will be able to speak to each other using the new tower, and coverage should be county-wide," Beebe said. "Right now, there are some dead spots where we can't communicate in some parts of the county. This should be a permanent fix. We will have a much better quality communication system."
"This project is fixing to come to an end, and we're more than thankful for that," Judge Sherrill said as the meeting came to a close.
In other business, the Quorum Court approved placing Carolyn Wiseman on the Izard County Library Board. Wiseman will replace Carrie Lindsay, a member who recently resigned.
Judge Sherrill reported that it may be another two months before a low water bridge which collapsed on County Road 81 is replaced. Sherrill explained Arkansas Game and Fish was holding up work on the project because of concern about the snail darter, an endangered species, which is in the creek. Sherrill recently provided information showing how water will flow through four four-foot-wide pipes under the bridge, so travel by the darter will not be impeded. He now expects Commission approval to proceed.
The judge also expressed thanks to David "Frog" Love, for helping the county finish a road repair in Guion, which was damaged in the last flood. Love, who owns a trucking company, offered to haul more than 30 loads of oversized rock in heavy duty, oversized trucks he uses at a Guion area sand plant. According to Sherrill, it would have taken the county's smaller dump trucks more than 60 loads to do the job, and the big rock would have damaged truck beds. As a result of Love's help, the road is back open. "He just wanted to help the community," Sherrill said.