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San Juan County looking for solution to spotty radio reception for first responders

An idea to build off the existing fiber infrastructure and install more antennas across the islands is in the works and could be on the November ballot.

ORCAS, Wash. — The thunderstorms over the weekend produced lightning that caused a small wildfire in San Juan County and the fire highlighted a growing need for better radio coverage across the County. 

The fire started at midnight on Sunday and when firefighters got to the scene, a lack of radio communication made things difficult. 

"[The firefighters] were unable to talk to dispatch or communicate real clearly what situation we were dealing with, how big it was or how fast it was moving," said Orcas Island Fire Chief Scott Williams. 

Despite the communication problems, the fire was put out quickly without any injuries. The issue of spotty radio coverage is not something Williams' department hasn't dealt with before. 

The whole of San Juan County is plagued with pockets of little to no radio coverage, which can make responding to emergencies tough. 

"When there's poor radio communication, we're unable to call for back up at times, we're unable to report a situation where we don't want other responders to come into, so that's a problem," said Williams. 

RELATED: Why was there so much lightning Saturday night?

It's a problem made worse by the islands rolling hills and mountain peaks, a beautiful sight, but the terrain blocks a lot of emergency communication. 

Williams said they've managed by using personal cell phones, but it's not enough. 

A solution may be coming soon, however, in the form of more coverage. 

Fire Commissioner Rick Christmas said over the past two years, the San Juan County council has been working with local emergency departments on an idea to build off the existing fiber infrastructure installed over the last few years. Their plan would be to build more antennas to give more coverage to the group of islands. 

The obstacle is figuring out how to pay for it. 

The cost of improvements ranges from $2.6 to $3 million, which the majority share would fall on the taxpayers. 

The council is trying to figure out the best pay structure to make the crucial changes and voters may be able to vote on this issue in November. 

Williams just hopes that a clear solution will be found soon. 

"As a community, we definitely need to do what we can."

RELATED: 5 ways to stay safe during a thunderstorm

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