Hawkins mayor, commissioner spar over failing emergency radio system

Jeff Bobo • May 20, 2020 at 3:00 PM

ROGERSVILLE — An effort earlier this year to upgrade Hawkins County’s emergency radio system was stalled by the COVID-19 crisis, prompting a heated exchange Monday between the mayor and a commissioner over the lack of progress.

Mayor Jim Lee suggested that Commissioner Mike Herrell’s questioning about the matter was politically motivated.   

On Monday, the Hawkins County Commission held its first meeting since Feb. 24. The March and April meetings were canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions, so the agenda included items that were left over from the previous two months.

At the beginning of the meeting, however, Herrell asked for an update on the emergency radio situation.

Still using backup radio equipment

The system went down three times between November and January and is currently running on backup equipment which doesn’t allow officers on opposite ends of the county to communicate with each other.

The county does not have another system to use if another failure occurs, although EMA Director Jamie Miller had previously informed commissioners there are vendors available to provide repairs and replacements if needed. 

In February, the commission’s Public Safety Committee (PSC) voted unanimously to request a countywide emergency radio assessment and cost estimate for the implementation of the Tennessee Advanced Communications Network (TACN) system.

TACN is used by the Tennessee Department of Safety, including the Tennessee Highway Patrol. Lee reported to the commission Monday that the TACN system has been determined to be unsuitable for Hawkins County, and other options are being explored.

“They can’t hear each other”

Herrell noted that the commission had authorized the mayor to apply for grant funding to address the issue, and he wanted an update on the status of that grant application as well.

“Somebody needs to update us every month on these radios until they get fixed,” Herrell said. “I understand there’s nothing in the budget right now for these radios, so if we’re going to do radios, where is that money coming from?”

Herrell added, “I know the other night we had some deputies on the other end (of the county) and they could not talk. They can’t hear each other. I think they were in a high speed chase up there. ... When this all started, it was a big issue here in the county. Now all of a sudden it’s went away. … The way I’m looking at it right now, we’re putting every deputy in this county in jeopardy.”

“Announce to everybody that he’s running for mayor”

Lee, like several commissioners, didn’t attend the meeting in person and participated via phone.

Lee said there will probably be more answers about the radio system next month. He noted that TACN conducted a study of the county and made a proposal of $4.2 million for a system that would provide less radio coverage than the existing system.

As a result, the TACN proposal is not feasible, and Lee said other options are being investigated.

Lee added, “Some of you may not know, like Commissioner Herrell, we’ve had a pandemic going on, and we’ve had other priorities. I think now would be a real good time for Mike Herrell to take this time to announce to everybody that he’s running for mayor. That’s why he’s giving us a hard time.”

“Get this fixed before something happens”

Herrell: “I understand we’ve been going through all this stuff with COVID-19, but these deputies are still working, so as far as I’m concerned, they’re part of it too. If they ain’t got a radio that they can communicate back and forth, sounds like to me that our EMA director needs to step up and get this fixed before something happens to one of the deputies in this county.”

Lee: “I assure you that we’re working on this radio problem every day. The problem is we can’t meet with anybody because of restrictions.”

Commissioner Dawson Fields, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said he will call a meeting as soon as Lee and Miller have something to report on the radio issue.

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