LIVE OAK — For about an hour Nov. 30, Suwannee County first responders were scrambling to communicate.

The radio system that the Suwannee County Sheriff’s Office and Suwannee County Fire Rescue went out that day, leaving first responders to use cell phones or the fire department’s old system as a means of communication.

Between those periodic breakdowns in the system — Sheriff Sam St. John said it happens probably a handful of times a year — and service dark spots within the county, St. John again asked the Suwannee County Board of County Commissioners at its Dec. 3 meeting to consider moving forward with replacing or upgrading the system. The board, which had previously discussed the issue in June with the goal of holding a workshop on the matter, agreed once again by a 4-1 vote to hold a workshop to settle the situation. District 5 Commissioner Ronnie Richardson voted against the workshop.

“This occurs every so often, it goes down and we have to scramble a little bit,” St. John said following the meeting about the current system in which the county has four towers that use phone lines between them to communicate.

“It’s an old technology and it doesn’t always work like it’s supposed to.”

When the board first discussed the system in June, it was dismayed by a $2 million price tag on radios in order to switch to SLERS, the Statewide Law Enforcement Radio System.

According to St. John and County Administrator Randy Harris, negotiations at a workshop with Harris Communications — the company that sells the radios for the state’s system — dropped that cost to approximately $1.4 million. St. John said Motorola, which is bidding to obtain the contract for the state system, suggested putting their equipment on the county’s existing towers until they took over the state system, or possibly continue using them long-term.

That cost drop caught most of the board members’ attention and proved persuasive.

“I’m all in favor of the radio system,” Chairman Len Stapleton said. “I know it’s going to be safer.

“I’m not in favor of kicking the can down the road.”

Richardson, though, said he still wanted to discuss options with other radio providers. He also asked for an independent consultant to help determine whether the radios from Williams were the only way to operate on the state’s system.

“I think there’s still a lot of unanswered questions out there,” he said, adding the price drop was more in line with what he would be willing to spend. “I’m not in a hurry for this at all. I think we can wait a little longer.

“I’m not sure Harris is the fix. I’d like to know more.”

Richardson said he wasn’t sold on the state’s system. Rather, he said he’d like to look at other companies and possible work arounds to the state system.

Anything that requires the county maintaining its own towers is no longer an option for District 3 Commissioner Ricky Gamble.

Gamble said when the county first started looking into replacing or upgrading the radio system three or four years ago, the goal wasn’t to switch to the state’s system. However, to upgrade its current towers and install more to provide better coverage throughout the county, the cost started to escalate to essentially match the cost of the state system.

And on the state system, the county doesn’t have to maintain towers or worry about repairs should disaster strike.

“It’s moving in right direction on the price and we’re out of the tower business,” Gamble said. “I think in the long term, we’re better off being out of the tower business.

“It’s a good system and I think it’ll be a great system for Suwannee County. Whatever we need to do, we need to move forward with it.”

It was decided after the vote on holding a workshop — a date has not yet been set — that Harris would attempt to find a consultant to attend the workshop as well.

Jamie Wachter is the editor of the Suwannee Democrat, Jasper News and Mayo Free Press.

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