The Norlina Town Board Monday night unanimously voted to move from U.S. Cellular to FirstNet services for first responders — police and public works.

During its December meeting, the board heard a presentation about FirstNet, a nationwide wireless broadband network designed solely for first responders.

FirstNet capabilities came to Warren County in August 2019 at the same time as the addition of two new cell tower sites, one near Warrenton and the other near Lake Gaston.

The network creates a bandwidth that gives communications by emergency personnel who sign up for the FirstNet service priority over everything else.

According to its website, FirstNet came about as a result of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Land and mobile phone lines were so overwhelmed by a high volume of calls that communication systems used by law enforcement, firefighters and paramedics could not operate easily.

FirstNet (the First Responder Network Authority of the United States) was created in 2012 as an independent authority within the National Telecommunication and Information Administra-tion. In 2017, FirstNet selected AT&T to build and manage the broadband network.

In December, Norlina Interim Police Chief Keishawn Mayes said that a FirstNet representative met with him, Norlina Public Works Director Blaine Reese and Lou Stultz before her tenure on the town board ended. At the time, Mayes noted that he saw a number of advantages with FirstNet.

“In emergency situations, our phone lines would always work, and (emergency personnel) would have priority,” he said.

Mayes added that if the police department’s radio system goes down, FirstNet can function like a radio system, keeping the communication lines open.

Also in December, Mayor Wayne Aycock told the newspaper that the town of Norlina currently provides cellphones to police officers. He noted that details about a potential agreement with FirstNet would have to be worked out, and police officers would be responsible for signing up with FirstNet.

Mayes previously described establishing an account in the police department budget to cover expenses related to FirstNet, but plans for payment would need to be finalized.

During Monday’s meeting, Reese told the board that this summer was the first time in Warren County that he had trouble in making cellphone calls. During holidays such as July 4 and Labor Day weekend, so many people were talking and using social media that he could not place calls. Reese added that he took a FirstNet tester phone with him to a game at a large stadium to test call capabilities. He said that calls from his regular cellphone did not go through, but there was no communication problem when he tried the FirstNet phone.

Commissioners Charles Smiley and Tyrone Simes said that FirstNet would benefit the town’s first responders.

Following the meeting, Mayes said that the police department had been using FirstNet tester phones since early November. He added that while the board vote allows the town to move forward with the switch from U.S. Cellular to FirstNet, logistics, including cost to the town, must still be worked out.


Water and sewer

Reese told the board that new water meters to replace the town’s current meter system have been ordered.

He said that system manufacturer Neptune Technology Group based in Alabama agreed to replace the system at no cost to the town as a result of serious malfunctions.

The town completed installation of its $230,000 computerized water meter system in 2013. Funding for the system was made possible through state revolving loan funds to be repaid over the course of 20 years interest free with an $11,500 annual payment.

Reese previously said that the meters’ communication boxes were supposed to relay water usage data to the town’s computer server. However, when the communication boxes stopped communicating with the server, meters had to be read manually. Reese said that public works personnel replaced meters with malfunctioning communication boxes, but problems reached a point that devices were failing at a faster rate than public works could replace them.

Monday night, Reese told the board that Norlina is six years into the 20-year warranty on its current meter system. He said that Neptune agreed to set a 15-year warranty on the new system to go into effect when installation is complete.

Reese also said that the town is moving forward with its wastewater rehabilitation project. He said that the project was expected to go out for bid in December, but an engineering survey took longer than expected.

In 2018, the U.S. Department of Agriculture awarded Norlina a $1.4 million grant toward the total estimated cost of $2 million for upgrading the town’s six wastewater lift stations, which move wastewater from lower to higher elevations. Reese previously said that the remaining $640,000 funding for the project would be financed through a 40-year USDA loan, which the town would repay at an annual payment of about $37,000.

Monday night, he said that project should eliminate lift stations at Shaw Street and near The Pines Apartments on U.S. 1, replacing them with gravity lines. 

Reese now anticipates that the project will go out to bid next month.


Citizen comments

During the public comments portion of the meeting, Norlina resident Pamela James stated that she welcomed the changes in town government that came as a result of the November Municipal Election.

She said that town funds were wasted in the past, especially in regard to efforts to renovate the former Norlina Library on Hyco Street for use as the town’s police department. 

The building which formerly housed the Norlina Library was partly renovated by the town’s public works department. However, Warren County Code Enforcement halted construction and condemned the building in 2018 after an inspection revealed a lack of permits for much of the work.

James criticized the town for selling the former town hall building on Main Street for just $25,000. She also urged the town to improve Norlina’s appearance, saying that leaves are piling up on street banks. 

She urged the mayor and town board to carefully monitor spending, saying that she has paid $36,000 in taxes and other expenses to Norlina in the 24 years she has lived here. James also asked the mayor and board to study past spending to form an account of how town funding has been used.

“We need you,” she said. “Help us get us back on track. … Too much was swept under the rug.”