Emergency communications system, used in part to find missing Louisa teen, gets state funding

Capitol Connection

"It wasn’t just local"

HANOVER COUNTY, Va. — Local, state and federal first responders were able to bring home a missing teen from Louisa County last week, in part, because of a statewide communication system that recently received more funding so 911 centers in all localities in Virginia can use it. 

The General Assembly put forward $6.5 million in the 2018-2020 biennial state budget to install and train people to use the Commonwealth Link to Interoperable Communications, or COMLINC. 

State public safety officials say COMLINC will help cut down on “avoidable delays” in an emergency. The radio communication program allows dispatchers in one locality to connect directly to emergency responders in other areas, including state and federal agencies, with an internet-based technology system. You can think of it as dialing into a three-way phone call or a video conference with multiple people in different areas. 

Since the groups are all on one call, public safety officials say it’s easier to get information out when there are incidents that cross county lines. 

“It bridges the technologies through standard procedures to ensure that the state agency radio system is available to our localities and vice versa,” Tom Crabbs, Virginia’s Statewide Interoperability Coordinator, said. 

Every second counts when relaying critical information from the 911 dispatch center to responders on the ground. Last week, Hanover County dispatchers were busy taking calls about Isabel Hicks, a 14-year-old, who went missing with her mom’s ex-boyfriend, Bruce Lynch.

“It wasn’t just local, it wasn’t just Hanover,” Cheryl Buchanan, the Hanover County Public Safety Emergency Communications Center Manager, said. 

Hicks went missing in Louisa County, but was later spotted in neighboring Hanover County. After the nine day man-hunt, Hicks and Lynch were found in Caroline County. 

Hanover dispatchers received more than 65 calls about Hicks’ case over the span of 48 hours. 

Preston Main, the Operations Senior Supervisor at Hanover County Public Safety Emergency Communications Center, was one of those dispatchers using COMLINC during the search. He explained dispatchers need to remain calm in any emergency situation when taking a call and giving the situations’ details to the appropriate first responders. 

“It was just like any other day here. Just another call,” Main said. 

Without COMLINC, Buchanan says communicating with so many different agencies during an emergency would be “challenging at best.” In some cases, localities would have to call outside resources and distribute another radio to first responders to communicate more easily with the county’s dispatch center. But with COMLINC “it was the click of a button,” she says, that connected everyone together. 

Since 2007, some localities have used the system, but had to pay for it with federal grants. 

“When you’re thinking about the tools that you want in your tool box… cost is going to be a huge concern,” Buchanan said. “The fact that they’re willing to take on that responsibility fiscally is going to be very impacting to localities, if not all of us.” 

Because of the new state money, starting in January 2020 localities will begin to have the funds to install COMLINC in their 911 dispatch centers. The goal is to have them all up and running by the end of 2022. The funding will also go towards training and upgrading the older COMLINC systems, like the one used by Hanover County. 

“We’re retraining all of the people who are going to use the technology,” Crabbs said. “We are sustaining the technology, we’ve invested in people and programs to make sure we can sustain the technology through the next three to five years and to sustain it further after that.”

Four new positions with Virginia State Police will train people on how to use COMLINC and to maintaining the communications system. 

State public safety officials hope dispatchers across the state will be trained on how to use COMLINC by the end of 2022.

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