By jeanne starmack
On a domestic call in November, Lowellville Police Chief William Vance got kicked in the chest.
Neither he nor the other officer on the call could radio for help — their portable radios were useless.
While responding to a motorcycle accident on state Route 289 in May that killed a woman, an officer could not use his portable radio to call for other response — he had to use a cellphone.
Officers who go into houses or buildings can’t use their radios, said Lowellville Mayor Jim Iudiciani. His fear: An emergency inside the schools will put lives at risk.
There are some areas in nearby communities that are also trouble spots for police — in Coitsville, those areas are near Lowellville and the Pennsylvania state line, said Coitsville Police Chief Jim Morris.
There are a few areas where radio reception is spotty in Poland Township, said police Chief Brian Goodin, though he said there are no major problems.
New Middletown has problem areas as well, said Mahoning County Commissioner Anthony Traficanti.
For Lowellville especially though, officials said, it’s geography, and an old 911 system and a new Federal Communications Commission rule that have conspired to create a risky situation for police who might not be able to call for help for a victim or for themselves. The problem has been going on for at least two years, Vance said.
The fire department, which uses Rural Metro ambulance services dispatching, is not affected, said Iudiciani, who is leading an effort to fix the problem.
“We’ve got to do it for the safety of our officers,” he said Tuesday.
The county’s VHF system dates to 1958, he said, adding that if the county could get grants to upgrade to a digital system, he would favor the village spending between $5,000 and $15,000 a year to fund it.
“Along with the other communities, we’ve got to fund this thing,” he said.
There are 13 departments in the county that use the system, said county Emergency Management Director Clark Jones.
“[Lowellville] sits below in the valley,” he said. “VHF frequencies do not necessarily follow curvature of the land.”
Clark also said that three months ago, the FCC ordered narrow banding, resulting in a decrease in signal strength.
Staley Communications, the contractor that runs the 911 equipment, has proposed a solution to strengthen the radio communications in Lowellville, Clark said, but added he does not want to explain the proposal until he has a chance to talk to county commissioners about it. He said he’s scheduled to do so July 12.
“It might assist Lowellville, but we don’t know,” he said, adding the proposal involves “a large expense.”
Clark said Lowellville has other options, such as dispatching through Campbell or Struthers. The village could also buy mobile repeaters that would rebroadcast from portable radios into cruiser radios, which are more powerful.
Iudiciani said the village would rather be on the same dispatch system as its nearby mutual-aid communities. He and Vance said they were unsure about how mobile repeaters would work.
County Commissioner John McNally said updating the 911 system “would be discussed in the future.”
“Because right now, we’re trying to solve the immediate problem,” he said. “I’m more concerned with Lowellville.
Traficanti attended a meeting in Lowellville June 5 for communities that are affected by poor radio communications. Coitsville and the village of Poland were represented there. Poland Police Chief Russ Beatty could not be reached for comment.
“Right now, it’s a transmitter issue,” Traficanti said. “We’re trying to resolve this, hopefully to solve the problem with the tower,” he said.
He added, though, that the county will ask U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan, D-17th, to help find a grant to upgrade the 911 system.
“A lot of departments are going to digital,” he said.
“As long as it’s fixed, I don’t care,” Vance said. “At 8 this morning, the dispatcher was talking, and I couldn’t hear it,” he said Tuesday.