Firefighters Union Warns Emergency Communications System at ‘Grave Risk of Catastrophic Failure’

Firefighters Union Warns Emergency Communications System at ‘Grave Risk of Catastrophic Failure’

In letter, governor is urged to expedite building of new system

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The president of the Montgomery firefighters union is sounding alarms about the county’s emergency communications system that has had repeated “major disruptions” in recent months and is calling on the governor to intervene.

In a letter to Gov. Larry Hogan this week, Montgomery County Career Firefighters Association President Jeffrey Buddle pressed the governor to direct state leaders to construct a new radio tower — a critical component to a plan to replace the current, aging system — on a previously agreed upon site that was withdrawn from consideration following public backlash.

“At this point, each and every day that public safety workers in Montgomery County must rely on the Montgomery County radio system, more than 1,000,000 residents, and my membership, are at risk,” Buddle wrote.

Representatives from the governor’s office and the State Highway Administration – the agency responsible for securing a site for the tower – did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

The 250-foot tower proposed near the Intercounty Connector and Georgia Avenue in Olney, was opposed at community meetings last year, prompting Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich to direct county leaders to consider alternative sites, a move that is expected to delay the build-out of a new system by at least a year.

Olney residents said they feel the tower will negatively impact the appearance and character of the town, according to Buddle’s letter.

A new, $45 million system was originally anticipated to be implemented and fully functional six years ago, but has hit several “logistical” delays, according to county leaders.

County fire and rescue leaders say there is no realistic alternative to the site. Other proposed locations would demand taller towers or would not be compatible with other locations, they say.

About 20 local, county and federal agencies will use the new system, including the county police department, park police and fire and rescue services. Some tower locations, including the site south of Olney, will also serve as part of a state communication system.

The 20-year-old Montgomery system has recently had several failures lasting hours, severely limiting the radio channels by which emergency responders can communicate. The most severe incident occurred over Mother’s Day weekend, when a 12-hour failure left only four radio channels available at times. There are usually about 16 channels available.

When a radio channel is unavailable, emergency responders receive a busy signal when they try to communicate. During the Mother’s Day weekend outage, there were more than 1,200 “busies” recorded. An average month yields one or two, according to county officials.

“The Montgomery County radio system is at grave risk of catastrophic failure and has been failing,” Buddle wrote. “The public safety radio system in Montgomery County is a risk to public safety and must be replaced as quickly as humanly possible.”

There are 11 towers in the current system, but there will be 22 tower sites in the updated system to increase coverage and efficiency. All but two tower sites have been selected and approved.

In addition to the Olney site, Elrich asked county leaders to reconsider a Seneca location.

If new sites are selected, the height of towers at other locations may need to be reconsidered to ensure radio frequencies aren’t interrupted by hills, trees, houses or other structures in between.

In his letter, Buddle said he understands the importance of considering community concerns in the tower site selection process, he feels “very strongly that there is a gross imbalance between those concerns and the importance of this tower to public safety.”

“I urge, in the strongest possible terms, that on behalf of my membership, and the citizens they protect, that you direct (state leaders) to proceed with the construction of the ICC/Georgia Ave site as quickly as it can be done,” Buddle wrote. “This is the fiscally responsible course of action and the only course of action that addresses the critical public safety needs responsibly.”

The union represents more than 1,200 first responders throughout the county.

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

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