Two years after major outages crippled Montgomery County’s emergency communication system, officials say a new, more reliable network that provides nearly 20% more coverage is fully operational, easing worries that first responders could be left with no way to talk or call for help.
Over Mother’s Day weekend in 2019, the county’s 11-tower system nearly failed, as outages knocked out nearly all of the channels police and other emergency personnel use to communicate for more than half of a day.
Over the next several months, as several smaller but still problematic outages plagued the system, county leaders scrambled to create contingency plans in case the network suffered a “catastrophic failure.”
They issued cellphones to first responders and met in closed session to create protocols and agreements with neighboring jurisdictions to share their systems in case of an emergency.
Simultaneously, the County Council and county executive finalized plans to switch to a new system by the end of 2020.
Though slightly delayed, the county on Feb. 23 moved the first of about 20 agencies from the old system to the new 22-tower system. Others were moved over in two subsequent phases, a slow transition to ensure the new network worked and that there was a fallback if there were problems.
The old 20-year-old network was turned off at 4:38 p.m. on March 9.
“To have had a network that could fail catastrophically at any time is just totally untenable,” said County Council Member Hans Riemer, who raised concerns about the aging system before the 2019 outage. “We kind of got lucky that when the system failed, there wasn’t something terrible happening, but you can draw that short straw and you can have that major event and suddenly your system is down, and the consequences of that would have been huge. So having this new system is a relief.”
The new system provides coverage of 98.8% of the county, including in buildings and other hard-to-reach areas, according to tests conducted in November. The former system — which was supposed to be replaced by 2009 — covered less than 80%.
Mike Knuppel, the county’s public safety system modernization manager, said another coverage test will be conducted on May 17 to analyze the effectiveness of the system when there is full foliage on trees. He said he does not expect any major differences, but Motorola, the company that built the new system, will correct any problems.
The new system is expected to last at least 15 years. A contract with Motorola includes “technology refreshes” five years and 10 years after installation to keep it up to date.
The contract includes a one-year warranty, during which Motorola will fix any problems at no cost to the county.
The May 2019 outage
During the major outage over Mother’s Day weekend in 2019, about 75% of the radio channels used by dispatchers and first responders were unavailable for 13 hours, leaving hundreds of officials across the county only four channels to communicate.
In an average month, there were one or two “system busies” — a channel request when a channel isn’t available. During the outage, more than 2,200 “busies” were recorded.
In emails obtained by Bethesda Beat in the days following the outage, county officials wrote that the system was “hanging by a thread.”
The disruption was likely caused by a malfunction in equipment that transmits signals between towers. When the equipment malfunctioned, it took radio channels off the air countywide, rather than disconnecting them from affected towers, county officials said at the time.
In the months following, there were other outages, though shorter and less significant, according to logs reviewed by Bethesda Beat.
But every week, sometimes daily, radio channels in use by emergency personnel faltered, either transmitting inaudible messages or not working altogether.
The problems were not systemic, like they were in 2019, usually only knocking out one or two of the available 16 channels for a few minutes. But they were still considered serious.
In an interview late last year, Dinesh Patil, an assistant chief with Montgomery County police, said first responders became accustomed to identifying when the radio system was having problems. They learned to notify appropriate staff members who worked to identify which tower and channel were not working properly. The channels were disabled and no longer assigned until repaired.
Over the past decade, the rollout of the new $42 million system has been delayed by “logistical snags,” according to county employees. Those delays were often caused by tense debates between residents and county officials about where the new towers should go.
In 2019, for example, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich directed project leaders to reconsider the location of two sites because community members were frustrated about what they said was a lack of transparency in the selection process.
Eventually, Elrich backtracked, though with “extreme reluctance,” and agreed to the original sites.
During a media briefing on Wednesday, Elrich said one of his first meetings after being sworn in as county executive in late 2018 was about the communication system. Before that, “nobody advocated for it properly,” he said.
“No one ever walked across the street and said this is a project that has to be done,” Elrich said, referring to the proximity in Rockville of the offices of the County Council and the county executive. “I sat there for 12 years and was the chair of the Public Safety Committee (on the council) and nobody said this has to be done now. Nobody ever walked across and said, ‘If we delay this another year, there’s a high likelihood of failure.’ When I walked in, it was like, ‘This thing is going to fail.’ ”
Knowing the system could fail at any moment was “one of the most nerve-wracking things,” Elrich said.
He said one of the key lessons he took away from the situation was: “When you have difficult decisions to make, and they’re life and safety, you ought to make it based on life and safety and trust that the residents of the county will understand why you’re making the investment.” Another, he said, is having or knowing where to get replacement parts before there are problems.
Now, the county is dismantling much of the old equipment, selling or donating what it can to other jurisdictions in the region that can use it.
Doing so is important because some of the equipment is no longer made. (The county sometimes turned to Amazon to buy replacement parts in the years leading up to the network replacement.)
It’s not a “big revenue source,” Knuppel said, but rather an effort for “everybody to work together to keep their public safety systems up and going.”
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org