By BILL ARCHER
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
With the exception of a few population centers, Mercer County is a mostly rural county. As such, many parts of the county are somewhat behind the curve in terms of recent technological advancements to the telecommunications field. Given the region’s mountainous topography, it’s easy to understand why modern wireless communications present different challenges locally than they do on more level land.
Mercer County was on the verge of achieving full coverage for its wireless emergency services network earlier this year when a legislative audit scuttled the construction of an emergency communications tower in the Elgood area, and has sent local emergency services personnel back to the drawing board in search of new funding sources to complete the job. The Elgood tower will serve Elgood, Oakvale and Lovern in Mercer County, and will also serve portions of Monroe and Summers counties that are not currently connected with the Statewide Interoperability Radio Network, known as SIRN (pronounced siren).
“They were trying to finish building the tower, but the audit report brought everything to a standstill,” Bobby Hoge, director of the Mercer County 911 Center said. “Right now, we’re having to go back out and advertise for bids and start the process over again. If it all goes well, we’ll be right in the middle of the winter when we can start working on the project again. That’s if we can obtain funding for the project.”
The Elgood Tower project was on its way until September when a report by the Legislative Auditor ruled that the method being used to award the contracts to erect towers in the SIRN program circumvented the appropriate procedure for contracts of $25,000 and above. SIRN program administrators awarded several tower projects to a Jane Lew-based contractor, Premier Construction Group LLC, that was the apparent low bidder for a contract awarded to erect a tower in Lewis County. The audit found that the practice of “piggybacking” the Lewis County bid to apply to other towers did not comply with state bidding rules.
The federal funds for the project came from the American Recovery & Reinvestment Act of 2009, along with additional State Lottery funds. Among the corrective recommendations that the legislative audit made was the suggestion that the State Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety assume direction of the SIRN program.
Lawrence Messina, spokesman for the Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety said that the department “is mindful of the audit,” and is approaching each project accordingly. However, he said: “Were committed to completing it,” and added that the department is dedicated to helping the first responders who use the system. He said that the immediate challenge is “identifying the necessary funding” to complete the job.
Hoge said that the SIREN system enables the 911 Center located on Crumpecker Hill in Green Valley to communicate with units in the field. He said that the Elgood area “is still one of the dark spots” in the county.
“I’m working now to redo the contracts so I can send them out for bids and looking for funding, hopefully in the form of grants,” he said, adding that the federal funds that were being used prior to the audit are no longer available.
— Contact Bill Archer at email@example.com