Commissioners and Sheriff Reach VFD ARPA Agreement

Feb. 15 – The Cherokee County Board of Commissioners approved the allocation of American Rescue Plan Act funds to improve rural fire communications at a special meeting Feb. 10, and in part thanks to Sheriff Jason Chennault, they will get the amount they asked for.

Tim Knight, who represents Cherokee County Rural Fire Services, and other volunteers have attended the last two commissioners’ meetings, asking for help in funding upgrades to communications systems.

“With the reduction in the number of volunteers and the increase in the volume of calls, interoperability between departments is even more critical and has become a standard in all structural fires, complex rescues and potential mass casualty incidents. “, said a proposal addressed to the commissioners.

They were advised to speak to the board of the 911 Trust Authority at a meeting on January 18, as renovations were needed first for the upgrades to work. Their request was then tabled at the February 7 meeting.

Knight explained that various departments have moved to a digital frequency, and if rural fire departments set up and operate on the same page before 911 Center, they will still be operational.

“We are dealing with a system that is over 20 years old, so there have been a lot of changes made by the [Federal Communications Commission] on the narrow band and all the rest that killed us. You leave [at] Keys, Lowrey, Peggs – we’re all having trouble communicating now,” he said.

The second proposal was to hire a full-time fire dispatcher for the 911 Center. Knight said they were secondary dispatched by either the Northeast Health System dispatcher or the Cherokee Nation dispatcher. Knight said there were delays with calls as dispatchers got busier and didn’t have a direct line to 911.

“This was an ongoing problem for many years and became increasingly problematic to the point where responders had to defend themselves in hostile situations, without any communication with [a] dispatcher or law enforcement,” the proposal reads.

According to the proposal, based on the current pay scale – including workers’ compensation, insurance and benefits – the amount needed would be $216,000 per year.

“This request has been calculated based on an on-duty dispatcher working a 40-hour week; it will require 4.5 employees for 24/7/365 coverage. The total cost of this project over a 3-year period will be $648,000,” the proposal reads.

Knight and the firefighters were asking for $523,525 for their two proposals, and they wanted that full amount from ARPA funds.

District 1 Commissioner Doug Hubbard asked if the tax advisory board was the recipient of the funds. Lowrey Fire Chief Larry Watts, who is also vice-chairman of the council, said they would be more than willing to disburse funds through the council.

“Since there was no action to spend the tax commission money, it was really never addressed, because it wasn’t sales tax and that’s the point” , said Watts.

Watts said the tax board would pass a resolution in support of the proposal. They were advised to submit a purchase order of all items requested from each fire department.

“Well, we’ve talked about it and we have $500,000 that we can transfer to you. We can’t pay the full amount right now,” said Clif Hall, District 3 Commission. during the process and someone doesn’t spend as much as they’re asking, in the future maybe we can… add the $23,000 to that.”

That’s when Sheriff Jason Chennault told the commissioners to take the $23,000 from his $1 million in ARPA funds that had been approved at the Jan. 18 meeting for 15 new, fully equipped trucks. Chennault had asked for the million dollars, but it turns out that buying the trucks will require just under $750,000.

“Take the $23,000 from our million dollars; we’ll be good,” Chennault said.

Those present thanked Chennault for his gesture and the commissioners said they would be fully funded for both proposals. Tahlequah Fire Department and Sparrow Hawk Fire Department were not included in the proposal.

Maria D. Ervin