As outages continue to cripple the Montgomery emergency communication system, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan on Wednesday condemned delays in a “critical” system upgrade.
Over the past month, the current 11-tower system has experienced several “major disruptions,” at times knocking out more than three-quarters of the radio channels first responders use to communicate. The most serious incident happened over Mother’s Day weekend when the system experienced a 12-hour outage and emergency personnel were forced to use cellphones to communicate after receiving more than 1,200 busy signals when trying to use their radios.
The aging system is slated for a $45 million comprehensive upgrade that would include 22 tower sites. That upgrade was expected to be complete in 2013 but has been delayed several times.
In a post on Twitter, Hogan said it is “inexplicable” that “some Montgomery County officials are considering standing in the way of a radio tower critical to our first responders,” seemingly a jab at County Executive Marc Elrich who recently directed state leaders to find a different site for two of the 22 towers needed to implement the new system.
Amid public backlash about two approved tower sites in Olney and Seneca, Elrich suggested project leaders find alternate locations, a move expected to delay the buildout of the new system by at least a year, or temporarily activating the new system with 20 towers.
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. The 20-site plan, however, would leave areas of the county without coverage, although it is not yet clear how much.
“As governor, I am committed to making sure that our law enforcement, firefighters, and first responders are equipped with the technology they need to do their jobs. Reliable communications can mean the difference between life and death,” Hogan wrote in his social media post. “I proudly stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our firefighters on addressing this public safety emergency.”
In a statement, Elrich said his administration “inherited” issues surrounding the aging system and said consideration of alternate sites for the two towers “in no way jeopardizes the public safety system today.”
“We continue to vigorously test contingency plans for minor and major scenarios,” the statement said. “… To be clear, the Elrich administration will never compromise the safety of the people of Montgomery County.”
Earlier this month, the county firefighters union sent a letter to Hogan, outlining the current system’s issues, saying the system is at “grave risk of catastrophic failure” and asking the governor to intervene and ensure the new system is completed quickly.
Hogan and his aides did not respond to requests for comment on the letter.
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.
Caitlynn Peetz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org