Credit: Photos By Steve Bohnel

County officials gathered Thursday near a radio tower stretching well over 100 feet into the air, close to Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department.

The new tower is part of a $42 million investment County Executive Marc Elrich and County Council members made to improve emergency communications. The money helped install 11 new radio towers countywide, including at Cabin John.

The county has a 10-year contract with Motorola to maintain the new system and help provide upgrades when necessary.

Emergency personnel realized the need for a new system when 75% of the county’s radio channels went down over Mother’s Day weekend in 2019. Officials said at the time that the entire system was “hanging by a thread.”

Elrich said at a news briefing that Thursday circumstances were once so bad that emergency personnel had to request leftover equipment from Fairfax County, Va., or search eBay whenever new parts were needed.

“That never should have happened with a piece of public safety equipment,” Elrich said.

Thursday’s event prompted County Council members to issue statements giving their account of how the emergency communication system was fixed.

They issued a news release commending the Government Operations & Fiscal Policy and Public Safety committees for prompting Elrich to look at emergency communication issues after the 2019 outages. 

Elrich had initially tried to delay the placement of two towers due to backlash from residents, but County Council members rejected that approach and caused the county executive to include them in the 22-tower plan.

“Our view prevailed and we are now seeing the fruits of our insistence that the project stay the course,” Council Member Nancy Navarro, chair of the Government Operations and Fiscal Policy Committee, said in a statement. “I continue to support our public safety agencies with new technology as it becomes available, and will ensure that adequate resources are available to ensure top of the line systems for our first responders.”

Council Member Hans Riemer, who is running for county executive against Elrich in the 2022 Democratic primary, put out his own statement on Wednesday evening. In it, he said he wrote a letter with Council Member Sidney Katz weeks before the Mother’s Day outages, highlighting problems with the overall communications system.

“The County Executive tried to derail this life-saving infrastructure for the whole County in order to appease a few neighbors who opposed a tower, such as the one you can now see in the ICC cloverleaf at Georgia Avenue,” Riemer wrote in the statement.

The tower at Cabin John Park Volunteer Fire Department is one of 11 new radio towers installed countywide.

Emergency personnel said at Thursday’s event that the new equipment and system are long overdue.

Michael Baltrotsky, an assistant chief in the county’s Fire and Rescue Service who heads the department’s technology section, said the new towers provide up to an 80% increase in coverage countywide. That includes near the Potomac River, which had been a sparsely covered area but is now improved by the tower near the Cabin John fire station.

Baltrotsky admitted that the entire system probably should have been replaced a decade ago, due to its age. But the new towers and 10-year contract with Motorola will enhance emergency communications for first responders and county residents.

“It used to be many years ago, you’d buy a radio system, and it would be there, it would just work, kind of like the FM radio in your car,” he said. “Well, now, people want all those different things on their FM radio. Well, sometimes, you can’t upgrade your old car — you have to just buy a new one. And in this case, we bought a new one that we can continually upgrade.”

Cassandra Onley, director of the county’s communications division, oversees the emergency communications center.

The 11 new towers not only improve the quality of calls between the center and first responders, but also creates “redundancies” in the system, so there are back-ups in case certain areas experience outages.

Not only has coverage improved along the Potomac River, but it’s better when first responders enter structures countywide.

“When they respond to an incident in a basement, or a lower-level area, and they weren’t able to transmit, they would have to go to another officer standing outside … to relay that information to get back to my staff in the communications center,” Onley said of operations before the upgrade.

“It’s a lot of money,” she added about the investment. “[But] ultimately, it’s for public safety and those that we serve.”

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com