LOUISBURG -- Fix the system, or else!
That was the ultimatum that Franklin County commissioners delivered to the architects of an emergency radio system that has been riddled with flaws since it was installed in 2012.
Since the county switched over to the system in the fall of 2012, first responders have noted problems with garbled audio, dropped calls and volume issues -- as well as areas with no service.
Emergency Communications Director Christy Shearin has worked with Harris Corporation staff to address problems, but the problems have remained, first responders tell county commissioners.
After being underwhelmed by Harris' response to recent calls for action -- and following a closed session on Monday night -- commissioners adopted a letter addressed to Harris Corporation that calls for them to address issues by certain dates or face repercussions from the county.
"... The quality and timeliness of radio maintenance services ... has been inadequate for the county's needs," the letter, signed by Commission Chair Sidney Dunston, states.
"... This letter serves as Franklin County's formal demand notice for Harris to immediately undertake these remedial tasks.
"If the requested steps are not taken by the dates specified, the county will consider other actions."
Those other actions, though, were not specified.
"We are committed to a quality system that ensures the safety of our citizens, public safety personnel and volunteers," County Manager Angela Harris said following the meeting.
"We are making good faith efforts to resolve outstanding issues," she said. "We fully expect Harris to provide the resources necessary to ensure a reliable public safety system as planned.
"The board will discuss any additional action based on Harris' progress."
To this point, much like the letter states, as well as the sentiment of many in the first responder community, that progress has been too slow.
Some end users have expressed concerns about the system since its inception.
In the last several months, though, Scott Strickland, a member of the now-defunct Bunn Rescue Squad made public the shortcomings of the system.
During the same time, Epsom's assistant fire chief Dwayne Cottrell has brought forth specific issues with the system -- highlighted by the fact that Epsom serves both northern Franklin County and parts of Vance County and doesn't have the same issues in Vance.
Shearin updated commissioners about the system, particularly her efforts -- along with Harris -- to address specific issues for which they have been made aware.
During the board's January meeting, Mike Axford, senior engineering manager with Harris Corporation, attended the county commissioners' meeting and promised to reach out to first responders to pinpoint their issues and address them.
He appeared back before the board on Monday night with a report on his efforts.
Axford said he met with Louisburg police, attended a firefighter's association meeting and had determined a fix to one of the issues that Epsom was having.
He also took part in an outreach meeting to learn from first responders the problems they were having and how Harris might address them.
"At that meeting, we had some very heartfelt and, at times, emotional descriptions of these challenges, just reiterating the need to get moving and get the issues that have been observed in the field resolved."
The next stage in Harris' efforts, Axford said, will be putting the Epsom fix in place, which could happen in the next 30 days.
That was the end of Axford's report prior to queries from commissioners.
Commissioner Cedric Jones asked Axford in January what he felt would be the first responders' level of confidence in the system.
Axford said he was unprepared to answer that question until he had one-on-one time with end users.
On Monday -- after Axford had that opportunity -- Jones asked the same query.
"Clearly," Axford said, "there was a lot of concern with the way the radio system is operating during that outreach meeting.
"The changes that we're putting in place, none of them have reached the end users [yet].
"... What I came out of the outreach meeting with, again, was the reiteration of the need to get moving to get these issues solved."
Commission Vice Chair Shelley Dickerson told Axford that she's been told repeatedly that the county has a product that's not working.
She wanted to know what Axford was going to do about it.
He said the fix in Epsom will make a tremendous difference. Beyond that, he said, Harris is tackling issues as they arise.
"We are looking to investigate ... [causes] , but, without specifics, it's difficult to make comments as to why somebody thinks it doesn't work," Axford said.
Dickerson asked Axford if he had met with first responders in the northeast part of the county -- an area notorious for communications issues.
"No, I have not, but that offer [for outreach] is open to anyone," he said. "We can certainly set that up.
"The whole outreach program was not a one-off thing," he said. "As I mentioned last time, the idea is to get out to various fire departments, police departments and understand the problem because unless we understand it, it's really challenging to actually fix them or do anything about them.
"The obvious ones that jump out, we're reacting to now," Axford said. "But, obviously, there are more things going on in the background that we could use clarity on."
Commission Chair Sidney Dunston was taken aback by the revelation that Axford had not gotten to the northeastern part of the county; or that Axford didn't come back to commissioners -- after 30 days -- with definitive solutions.
"The thing that concerns me, sir, is that you had 30 days to come back to report to us a solution to the problems that we were having in the field," Dunston said. "Now, I'm very disappointed in your outreach if you haven't outreached the entire county.
"I don't understand why you haven't gotten into the northeastern section of the county."
Axford said a devastating storm led to the cancellation of the first outreach meeting.
"You're punting this football down the field," Dunston said. "[You're] telling us you're coming back with a solution.
"You were supposed to have a solution tonight."
Commissioner Mark Speed probably had the most pointed exchange with Axford.
"As this system stands right now, if you had a family member that lived here in the county, would you feel confident that they were going to get the emergency service that they deserved?" Speed said.
"I think that the system as a whole is working," Axford said. "There are cases where it's challenging.
"And it's those cases where its' challenging -- which is not every call -- that's what we're trying to solve."
"That's not what I'm asking," Speed said. "[The question is:] Do you feel confident that your family member would receive the quality of service with us depending on this system?"
"As I said, the system is working most of the time and that the cases where there are challenges, maybe can be mitigated by different approaches to [how it's being used]," Axford said.
Following Axford's presentation and the board's queries, commissioners went into closed session for about half an hour before emerging with the ultimatum letter that Dunston read into the record.
While the roughly $11 million system has had issues from the beginning, the letter specifically identifies and speaks to failures in the system that arose from the $2.49 million Phase 2 conversion upgrade that was approved in the spring of 2018 and went live in the spring of 2019.
"... The current state of the [radio system] here has exposed Franklin County's radio personnel and the county's citizenry to an unacceptable level of risk," the letter states.
The county gave Harris three dates, March 18, March 31 and April 31 to address various performance issues with the radio system.