Communication is a concern at the Ellis County Sheriff’s Office – and one that sheriff Chuck Edge hopes to soon resolve.
When Edge was sworn in as sheriff in April 2017, he was to fulfill the remaining 21 months of a two-year term left vacant after the former sheriff, Johnny Brown, resigned from his position. When Edge came onboard, one of the first priorities he had to deal with was the office’s communications system, which, as Edge stated, was in poor condition.
“We lost all radio communications one day,” Edge stated. “As soon as the battery pack ran out, we lost all power. Nobody could figure out exactly why.”
The ECSO’s radio communications system operates primarily on three different radio towers throughout the county. One of the most prominent is the Joe White tower, located next to the Ellis County Law Enforcement Center near Farm to Market Road 878. The other two radio towers are at Region 10 southeast of the county and sitting on the water tower in downtown Milford.
All three of these towers, Edge explained, had microwave dishes on them that sent signals between each tower. Edge stated that the microwave dishes were designed for commercial application – not emergency communications.
“They were not public safety compliant,” Edge remarked. “They were basically what Waxahachie ISD would put on one of their buildings so all the different campuses could be connected. It was not ready for public safety use.”
Edge explained that when the power went out on the Joe White tower in November 2017, it knocked out the signal from the other two towers, essentially leaving ECSO in the dark.
“When the Joe White tower goes down, you lose everything – because everything feeds off of the Joe White Tower,” Edge expressed. “We found all kinds of problems with the communications system.”
Eventually, the sheriff’s office was able to restore communications between the towers, but they had to operate on different frequencies as a temporary fix while new dishes were constructed and implemented this past week. Edge explained that the ECSO operated on a frequency of 157 megahertz, while the Waxahachie Police Department operates on an 800 megahertz frequency and surrounding police departments operate at a 700 megahertz frequency.
Because of their different frequencies, the ECSO usually has to use different radio equipment between various police departments, and only supervisors are allowed to use the handheld radio equipment.
Edge stated that can be a problem since the ECSO dispatches for 28 agencies in the county, including the Italy, Maypearl and Milford Police Departments, as well as several other volunteer fire departments.
And in the more tense situations, the communications become an even more severe problem. When a 16-year-old male student walked into Italy High School and shot a 15-year-old student in Jan. 2018, Edge recalled that Italy Police, Department of Public Safety troopers and ECSO deputies all responded to the emergency.
His department was able to communicate with everybody in the building. Everybody, that is, except for Edge’s own deputies.
“Once our officers were in the building, they could not communicate anymore,” Edge recalled. “They could communicate outside on the mobile radio in the car, but once they got in the building on their handheld, the communications were almost non-existent. It was not a good day.”
To improve communications between the ECSO and the surrounding departments, Edge is trying to make a push towards a regional communications system, where the departments could all operate on one frequency as opposed to several. Midlothian Police Capt. John Spann stated that the Midlothian Police Department currently operates on the Fort Worth Regional Radio System and they’re able to communicate freely between their department and others.
We can still switch to VHF, so we can talk to some of the smaller cities and the sheriff’s office in the county,” Spann remarked. “We have both 700 and 800 capability. Everybody’s pretty much going to the 700-800.”
Yet, the venture would be a costly one for the sheriff’s office. Edge estimated that the proposal could cost anywhere between $4 million and $7 million for the county, depending on how many new radio towers they may need to construct, what new radio equipment they may need and other fees that might be involved with getting onto a regional system.
But Edge believes the improvements are not only worth the expenses for the county – he expressed that they are very much needed. Edge stated that his office will organize a propagation study to see what areas of coverage they need to focus on and will start compiling the financial information into his budget package in May, which will go to the Ellis County Commissioners Court for consideration later in the fall.
“It’s a public safety issue and it’s countywide,” Edge expressed. “It’s not one precinct here or one courtroom there. If the radio is not working, there is a major issue.”