2019 | Police & Fire

Tuesday Outage Crippled County’s Emergency Communication System

Aging network had largest-ever malfunction earlier this month

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Photo via Pete Piringer, MCFRS spokesman

Less than a month after Montgomery County’s emergency communications system used by first responders suffered an outage lasting more than 12 hours, the network faltered again on Tuesday.

At about 10:15 a.m. Tuesday, a Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services spokesman reported the system was on “condition red due to an internal technical issue,” meaning non-emergency radio use was restricted because many radio signals were out of service, straining the system’s ability to carry voice traffic.

Police did not report any major emergencies during the hour the system was impacted Tuesday morning, but county leaders have voiced concern that such outages could impact emergency responders’ response time to serious incidents, jeopardizing residents’ safety.

The “Condition Red” alert was canceled around 11:20 a.m. About four hours later, another alert was issued for approximately 30 minutes.

“Unfortunately, the system is so deteriorated that it has small failures now regularly and it needs to be replaced immediately,” said County Council member Hans Riemer, one of two councilmen who wrote a letter to County Executive Marc Elrich last month urging him to ensure the network is replaced in a timely matter. “These kind of blinking outages are going to keep happening until the system is upgraded.”

The aging system comprised of 11 communication towers has been the focus of an upgrade initiative for more than a decade, but delays in obtaining new tower sites have stalled the plan.

Most recently, Elrich asked county leaders to explore alternate sites for two of the 22 new towers, which could push back implementation of the upgrade another year.

Riemer and Council Vice President Sidney Katz urged Elrich to retract his request in a letter in late April, saying “the entire public safety communications system is strained under the delay.”

Earlier this month, the system experienced its largest-ever outage, dropping to about 25% of its normal capacity.

The 20-year-old system – used by the county police, fire and rescue services, sheriff’s office and others – sometimes experiences minutes-long malfunctions in which emergency responders are unable to communicate between each other, but recent instances of outages lasting more than one hour are “unheard of,” county employees said last week.

The disruption was likely caused by a malfunction in equipment that transmits radio 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.

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 1,200 “busies” recorded during the Mother’s Day weekend outage, according to county officials.

Last week, the system again experienced an outage, again leaving four channels on which emergency responders could communicate throughout the county, according to county fire and rescue personnel. The system experienced issues for about six hours before it was restored to its normal operation. There are usually about 16 channels available.

It was unclear what caused Tuesday’s issue but county fire and rescue employees said there were roughly 130 “busies” and only four available channels for the duration of the outage.

Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at caitlynn.peetz@bethesdamagazine.com