Saunders County first responders at risk due to radio dead spots

Published: Nov. 3, 2021 at 11:36 PM CDT
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WAHOO, Neb. (WOWT) - A 6 News On Your Side investigation uncovers startling gaps in communication that puts first responders at risk in a county near Omaha that can also cost life-saving time for anyone who needs help.

Responding to an emergency can put lifesavers at risk because of radio dead spots.

“We have a two….involved second floor,” said Fire chief.

“Most of that was broken, I only caught the last part,” said dispatcher.

Wahoo’s EMS Director Grant Anderson responded to that scene.

“When our fire chief can not communicate to dispatch what we have, while we have firefighters in the house, then we’re taking a lot of risk and a lot of burden on relying on getting the adequate resources we need,” said Anderson.

Problems communicating are not just in Saunders but between counties.

“The delay in Yutan getting there is what surprised me knowing they are closer,” said Valley Fire Chief Terry Luthy.

The first on the scene of a recent deadly crash, Valley’s fire chief says Saunders’ older system doesn’t have direct radio contact with a newer one in Douglas County causing a 12 minute time span before Yutan is dispatched.

“I believe so, I think the fire would have been extinguished faster, I think we would have gotten extrication sooner,” said Luthy.

Even with timely dispatch, first responders say there are spots in Saunders County that sound lonely.

The isolated road known as the Devil’s Slide can be popular in the summertime. Reckless drivers use it for thrills and in the winter, there’s sledding and there have been injuries.

When called, Yutan Fire Chief Donald Dooley needs to hit one of six towers.

“Yutan 101 to Wahoo Sheriff,” said Dooley.

“It’s staticky, I can’t understand you,” said dispatcher.

Just down the road, 72-year-old Mike Pratt says cell phones are spotty and he has vascular issues.

“They have to communicate with the hospital right to the doctor and they send them my blood pulse and stuff like that,” said Saunders County resident Pratt.

Communication issues are also the talk of law enforcement and 911 dispatchers like Jami Bowers.

“There can be scary moments if deputies are on a call and you can’t get ahold of them because they’re being walked over or in an area where you can’t reach them,” said Bowers.

Thirteen fire departments and a half dozen of law enforcement agencies rely on the same outdated radio system.

“It’s the equivalent of having a four-lane highway going into a one-lane bridge. We can only have one car at a time and one person talking at a time,” said Saunders County Sheriff Kevin Stukenholtz.

Motorola submitted a $10 and a half million bid for a new communication system, the Saunders County Board let it expire without action.

“We need to look at paring it down to what we can afford, what our citizens in the county can afford instead of all tax dollars continuing to rise,” said County Board Chairperson Doris Karloff.

Board Chairperson Doris Karloff wants to spend no more than $6 million if the feds allow $4 million in COVID relief money and the rest from an inheritance tax fund.

“I think we can and I think we have to work at it and that is what we’re doing,” said Karloff.

In Saunders County, the static isn’t just on air but between first responders and the county board.

The county board chairperson says she’s looking into a communication system in a larger county that costs closer to $5 or $6 million. But first responders say that delays a proposal already on the table which will take two years to install.

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