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OPINION: Adequate call coverage is important for public safety

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Saul Hernandez

Saul Hernandez

In response to the Bristol Herald Courier Managing Editor Roger Watson’s opinion titled “Supervisors spend $600,000 to benefit squirrels with cellphones”:

It is understandable how some of the details can be lost in translation when a local government brings forward projects that they feel benefit the community, especially when they have a large price tag. We understand too that not everyone will watch the full meeting to get all the details. The meeting in question was the regular meeting of the Washington County Board of Supervisors held on March 22. In that meeting, we heard the presentation of a Broadband Mapping Study by Ernst & Young Infrastructure Advisors that showed 71% of Washington County, Virginia, citizens were without reliable broadband or cell service. The presentation further showed how the corridors near and around the Mendota Trail and portions of the Creeper Trail were the areas with the least access to broadband and cell service.

The Board of Supervisors did in fact choose to use Federal ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) funds to implement phase two of what began with the Broadband Mapping Study by Ernst & Young Infrastructure. The use of the federal ARPA funds means this expenditure will be funded without impacting the county’s budget. Ernst & Young will be assisting the county in identifying potential project areas, analysis of potential funding sources, as well as assisting in the application to competitive grant programs. We feel confident that this engagement will help us achieve our goal of providing adequate broadband and cell coverage to our citizens.

While it is not our responsibility to “guarantee that people can access email, post selfies to Instagram and work on the Wordle puzzle on the trail,” we are responsible for access to emergency services for visitors and citizens in and around those isolated areas. As an example of the need, on the 17-mile stretch of the Creeper Trail, our emergency service agencies receive numerous calls each year due to biking accidents, injured hikers and lost children. In these instances, depending on where they are, people must travel to Damascus to get help. In a more personal example, a few years ago, I came upon a terrible automobile accident in the Mendota/Benhams area and since there was no cell coverage, someone had to race down to the local volunteer fire department to get help.

Lastly let me say how disappointed I was at the Bristol Herald Courier for printing this opinion piece without having a clear understanding of the issue.

Suffice it to say adequate broadband and cell coverage is not only important for public safety but also for education, economic development and quality of life. I am sure Mr. Watson and others got a big chuckle when they penned the “Squirrels with Cellphones” line, but I can assure you that the citizens in the remote parts of Washington County are not squirrels, and to the first responders, small business owners and parents of school-aged kids, the lack of adequate broadband coverage and cell service is no laughing matter.

Saul Hernandez is the chairman of the Washington County, Virginia, Board of Supervisors.

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