December 08, 2022

Schools, county receive new updated radio systems

Ahead of the 2022-23 school year, Clarke elementary, middle, and high school, Murray schools, and The Village Early Childhood Center, have each received one new school safety radio.

Along with the schools, local law enforcement, fire departments, emergency services and other government entities also have new safety radios, and the county as a whole has updated to a new operating system.

Radio system

Prior to installation of nearly 100 radio towers around the state, Clarke County operated on digital VHF scanning, which made communication not only difficult within the different county entities, but outside counties as well. Now, the radios operate on a 700 megahertz (MGz) system, as part of the statewide Iowa Statewide Interoperable Communications System (ISICS). Clarke County runs off of a variety of locations, including Van Wert, Union County, Winterset, and Warren County, all of which can be used on the new radio systems.

“The nice thing about the system, it gives us interoperability with not only ourselves, but also state entities,” said Osceola police officer Earnest Pettit.

There are about 100 radio channels that can be of radio traffic.

Operation

In the case of the school radios, which are on an event talk group, they are designed so that in the event of an emergency, the caller can push a button that will switch the radio from its main channel directly to the dispatch center, triggering an alarm as it does so.

A ‘hot mic’ will automatically be activated, allowing the caller an uninterrupted 15 seconds to talk to dispatch and tell them what is going on. As long as the button on the radio is pushed, putting it in ‘emergency mode,’ the caller can talk to dispatch. Once the 15 seconds are up, dispatch can start talking back.

“[They] push the button, talk, tell us what they need, we can send ‘em,” said Pettit. “If they push the button and don’t say anything, we’re sending everything.”

Each radio has a unique ID, so dispatch and officers know exactly which radio has declared an emergency situation, allowing them to respond appropriately. Once the emergency is over, dispatch will clear the emergency on their end and the user can reset their radio back to its regular scan mode.

While the radios are focused heavily on active threat situations, they can also be used anytime someone doesn’t think they’ll have time to dial 9-1-1.

“Any bonafide emergency happening so rapidly, that’s the best way to get a hold of us,” said Emergency Management Coordinator and Osceola Fire Chief Byron Jimmerson.

“Push the button, we come,” said Pettit.

The school safety radios are not the only radios that can be used to declare an emergency situation - now with the updated system, so can Conservation, EMS, fire, and more. Before, only law enforcement had the capabilities to do so. The button on whomever’s radio can be pushed, and it will pop up across all talk groups.

Cost

The radio project was paid for out of funds Clarke County received from American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). In addition to the school radios, the fire departments in Woodburn, Weldon, and Murray, and the Clarke County Sheriff’s Office, also received safety radios with county funds.

The amount of ARPA funds used came to over $750,000, and Clarke County Development Corporation (CCDC) awarded an additional $100,000 to the project earlier this year. Others around the county, like the police station and Osceola fire department, either paid for their own or found grants to cover the costs.

Originally, the school safety radio at The Village was not budgeted in the project. Pettit took programming courses through Motorola and in turn programmed all of the radios, cutting a large chunk out of the budget that allowed for the fifth school radio to be purchased.

“We are thankful…there was quite a bit done while on duty, but also off duty and volunteer time. The combination effort resulted in the additional school radio,” said Jimmerson of Pettit’s programming work.

Crystal Hansen, executive director of The Village said of the radio they had not think they would get,

“The Village is very grateful for being included in this community project for the safety of our children, families, and employees. We want to thank everyone that was involved in making this happen for our community, especially thanks to Byron and Earnie for going above and beyond to make sure that our center was included and received a safety radio.”

System background

Supervisor Dean Robins said that supervisor Larry Keller and Clarke County Sheriff Rob Kovacevich had been working to get the local radios on the state system for the better part of ten years. As previously stated, most entities could only communicate internally, and not easily with other counties. Factors such as cost and waiting to see if the state was going to do anything stalled the project from moving forward.

Supervisor Austin Taylor added that there had been a push across the country for interoperability since 9/11, and the increase in school shootings over the last few years amplified the need to get this done at the local level.

Statewide radio project and reporting app

On June 14, days after Clarke County had already finished their radio project, Governor Reynolds announced a $100 million investment in school safety.

In a press release from Reynolds’ office at that time, the initiative said that it will send funding to the 327 public school districts and 183 non-public and independent schools. The funding will provide vulnerability risk assessments for all schools, and up to $50,000 per school for the implantation of school safety measures through the newly created School Safety Improvement Fund. The schools that already have radios can use the funds to purchase more if they wish.

In addition to the radios, part of the school safety initiative is digital software for anonymous reporting of threats, something Emergency Management has already been working on.

The anonymous reporting system, found through www.saysomething.org, will roll out in the spring, with users able to report any sort of threat via app, website, or phone.

“The good thing about the state saying ‘we’re doing radios and anonymous reporting,’ we were already doing it, so we’re on the right track,” said Jimmerson.

“You can’t always rely on someone else to do the work for you, if it’s something you feel like you need,” said Taylor.

Candra Brooks

A native of rural Union County, Candra holds a Bachelor's Degree in English from Simpson College and an Associate's Degree in Accounting from SWCC. She has been at the Osceola newspaper since October 2013, working as office manager before transitioning to the newsroom in spring 2022.