After several hours-long outages in Montgomery County’s emergency communication system, county leaders are creating back up plans for first responders to communicate in the event of a long-term failure.
Concerns about the 11-tower communications system began surfacing over Mother’s Day weekend, when the system experienced a 12-hour “major disruption” that, at times, knocked out about 75% of the available radio channels used by police, firefighters and rescue crews.
In an average month, there are one or two “system busies” — a channel request when a channel isn’t available — but there were more than 2,200 “busies” recorded during the outage.
Dozens more busies have been documented in periodic disruptions since, according to county officials.
During outages, public safety officials opt to use cellphones and messaging apps for non-emergency communications to reduce radio traffic and ease pressure on the system, but if any major safety or fire incidents occur during an outage, county leaders believe it would be “extremely difficult to appropriately respond.”
“I think what’s happening is totally unacceptable and it’s absolutely outrageous,” County Council member Hans Riemer said during a joint meeting of the council’s Public Safety and Government Operations committees Tuesday afternoon.
Among the back-up options in the event of a “total system failure” being considered are walkie-talkie-like cellphone apps.
While those apps can provide channels for communication, they rely on cellphone network service to operate, so areas without cellphone service would not be covered, according to county staff.
Additionally, a long-term failure would impact Montgomery officials’ ability to communicate with neighboring counties’ first responders, particularly detrimental along the Prince George’s County border, county staff said.
Contingency plans for short-term outages are included in part of public safety agencies’ annual budgets. Projected costs for long-term outages will be developed and more information is expected in September, when training exercises are planned.
“At the end of the day, we just need tools that work,” said Dinesh Patil, assistant chief with the Montgomery County Police Department. “Of all the tools we carry, this is probably the one we use the most every single day.”
The county in late May issued an emergency procurement and installed a new so-called timing source to regulate the system, with an approximate price tag of $27,000, according to county government documents. The county is considering purchasing three more timing sources.
The “vintage and legacy” communication system is a decade beyond its projected “end of life” date, and was originally scheduled to be replaced by 2013, but delays in vendor selection, site selection and permitting requirements have delayed the project.
County staff members said there are some places, like schools, that do not receive coverage with the current system, which could pose serious issues in the event of a school shooting or other public safety event.
“I have a great appreciation for first responders and their ability to be able to figure things out on the fly, but I wouldn’t want to be the community member waiting for a first responder kind of trying to figure it out,” council member Andrew Friedson said. “There is no greater public interest than public safety, period. Full stop. It seems like what we have is a bubble gum and duct tape operation, and it’s completely inadequate for anywhere, let alone a place with a $6 billion budget and 1.1 million people.”
This year, County Executive Marc Elrich directed county and state leaders to explore alternate sites for two already-approved tower locations due to backlash from residents, a move county officials say will delay the buildout of the new system at least another year.
Elrich has also suggested temporarily activating the new system with 20 towers, instead of the 22 sites outlined in the original plan. A 20-site system could be ready for use by December 2020, with a goal of adding the two additional sites by the end of 2021, according to county Department of Technology Services staff.
County officials have said the proposal to re-examine the sites was because community members were frustrated with potential “aesthetic” implications of having a 250-foot-tall tower near their homes.
State Sen. Ben Kramer, a Democrat from Wheaton who represents District 19, slammed those allegations, saying the Olney community, where one of the sites is located, is outraged about a lack of transparency in the site selection process.
“There is not one member of the community that is not 100% concerned about the best interests and welfare of our first responders. Any representation otherwise is absolute insult,” Kramer said. “There is no reason we cannot have the quality system, which is the goal, and be able to also ensure the best interests of the residents of the county who will be paying for the system have their interests met.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at email@example.com