Governor Pledges to Build Tower Needed for Replacement of Montgomery Emergency Communication System

Governor Pledges to Build Tower Needed for Replacement of Montgomery Emergency Communication System

Council presses executive to have new system in place by fall 2020

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Photo via Pete Piringer

After blasting the Montgomery County executive for delaying the buildout of a new emergency communication system, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan penned a letter to local officials Wednesday afternoon pledging to build one of the towers necessary for the replacement system.

The tower, at the intersection of Georgia Avenue and the Intercounty Connector south of Olney, is one of 22 locations previously approved for the project by county officials. Earlier this year, County Executive Marc Elrich ordered county leaders to find an alternate location after some residents voiced concerns about having the tower in their neighborhood.

“The perilous condition of the existing emergency radio communication network, described in your letter as ‘at risk of catastrophic failure,’ is unacceptable,” Hogan wrote to Montgomery firefighters union President Jeffrey Buddle, who had reached out to Hogan earlier this year with concerns about the system. “While certain local officials have expressed concern over the location of the tower, our administration remains committed to providing our emergency responders with the tools necessary to adequately protect our communities.”

Hogan’s announcement comes two weeks after he took to social media, chiding county officials for “inexplicable” delays in the network upgrade.

In May, the Montgomery system experienced a 14-hour outage, knocking out nearly all of the radio channels first responders use to communicate. Police and fire officials were forced to communicate via cell phone and to restrict non-emergency communications.

The system has faltered several times since, prompting a convening of a County Council committee to discuss the issue and outline backup plans should the system experience a “total failure.” The county in late May issued an emergency procurement and installed a new so-called timing source to regulate the system to prevent further outages, with an approximate price tag of $27,000, according to county government documents.

The “vintage and legacy” communication system is a decade beyond its projected “end of life” date, and was originally scheduled to be replaced by 2013, but delays in vendor selection, site selection and permitting requirements have delayed the project.

Elrich directed county and state leaders earlier this year to explore alternate sites for two already-approved tower locations – one in Olney and one in Germantown – due to backlash from residents, a move county officials say will delay the buildout of the new system at least another year.

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, giving Hogan authority to determine its location. County officials must agree to collocate their system with the state at the Olney location, a move for which many council members have voiced support.

Elrich has also suggested temporarily activating the new system with 20 towers, instead of the 22 sites outlined in the original plan. 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.

But County Council members have said they do not support the 20-site plan because it would not provide “95/95” coverage, meaning 95% of the county would be covered 95% of the time, which is industry standard.
All nine members of the council signed a letter to Elrich last week urging him to replace the aging system by fall 2020.

On Tuesday, the County Council plans to introduce an amendment to the county’s six-year capital improvements plan that will update the definition of the emergency communication system modernization project to include the locations of the 22 proposed tower sites.

“The key here is this spells out the tower locations,” said council member Hans Riemer, who is co-sponsoring the amendment with council Vice President Sidney Katz. “If the executive wants to send an amendment that picks different locations, that’s within his rights, but the purpose of the amendment is for the council to be as clear as we can possibly be that we want to move forward with system we’ve already designed.”

The action, paired with the governor’s Wednesday announcement, would force Elrich to move forward with implementing the complete system unless he introduces a budget amendment to redefine the project or identify alternate tower sites for the two he requested be moved.

A spokesman for Elrich could not be reached Wednesday afternoon.

In a statement last month, Elrich said consideration of alternative sites “in no way jeopardizes the public safety system today. In fact, the Elrich administration has taken significant steps to strengthen the existing system and improve its stability so that people are safe. “… To be clear, the Elrich administration will never compromise the safety of the people of Montgomery County.”

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

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