Montgomery Emergency Communication System ‘Hanging by a Thread’

Montgomery Emergency Communication System ‘Hanging by a Thread’

Aging system experienced 13-hour ‘disruption’ earlier this month

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A “major disruption” in the county’s emergency communications system on Mother’s Day weekend knocked out about 75% of the radio channels used by dispatchers and first responders for several hours over two days.

The two lengthy outages, which apparently did not occur during any major emergency incidents, are raising fresh concerns about the condition of the 20-year-old network and chronic delays in installing a new, $110 million system.

“Public safety radio communication in Montgomery County was hanging by a thread for a good part of Friday into Saturday,” one county fire and rescue services employee wrote in an email to county officials. “I have no reason to think what happened Friday into Saturday could not happen again at any time.”

During the weekend, the system was functioning at about one-quarter of its typical capacity for more than 12 hours, according to a fire and rescue official who asked not to be named because they were unauthorized to speak about the issue. During the delay, about four channels were available to carry voice traffic among emergency responders. There are usually about 16 channels available.

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 2,200 “busies” recorded during the outage, according to the official.

A police spokesman deferred questions about the outage, that started at about 10:30 p.m. Friday, May 10, and lasted into the next afternoon, to county government staff.

Internal communications in the days following the incident, referred to as a “disruption,” show frustration and worry about the effectiveness of the aging system and the impact of lengthy disruptions to critical emergency operations.

“We shed as much load off the system as possible and crippled through the day using the available capacity,” a county emergency responder wrote in an email to County Council staff. “We were very fortunate that this happened late in the evening and that the level of incident activity for both police and fire was low throughout the whole time. If this had happened during a busy rush hour with a structure fire or two and one or two critical police incidents we would have been in VERY bad shape.”

Previous disruptions lasted, at most, 45 minutes, but typically were resolved within minutes, according to the email messages from county emergency responders to County Council staff.

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.

About three hours after the issue was resolved, it happened again, and lasted for about an hour.

It remains unclear what caused the second issue and how it eventually fixed, seemingly on its own, according to county staff.

County officials have long been rolling out a $110 million plan to update a communication system that has been in place for nearly 20 years, but the plan has hit several “logistical snags,” according to county employees. Originally expected to be in place in 2013, the new system likely won’t be operational for 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.

There are 11 towers in the current system, but there will be 22 tower sites in the updated system to increase coverage and efficiency.

In November, the county Planning Board debated recommending approval of one of the new system’s towers in Potomac, but ultimately reached a consensus that the emergency coverage provided by the tower would outweigh community members’ concerns about the 189-foot structure’s location and impact on the neighborhood’s “character.”

In April, several weeks before this month’s disruption, Montgomery County Council members Sidney Katz and Hans Riemer sent a letter to County Executive Marc Elrich, concerned about the executive’s recommendation to explore alternative locations for two new tower sites.

Elrich advised project leaders earlier this year to look for alternative locations for the two already-approved towers — one at Bretton Woods in Germantown and the other at the Georgia Avenue and Intercounty Connector interchange north of Aspen Hill, which could delay implementation of the project for an additional year.

Elrich and his county public information office did not return messages seeking comment.

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 their letter to Elrich, Riemer and Katz say some equipment for the current system isn’t manufactured anymore and replacement parts sometimes have to be purchased from online retailers like E-bay.

“The Bretton Woods and Georgia Ave/ICC towers not only address known gaps, but they also work in tandem with existing towers to make the entire network work,” Riemer and Katz wrote. “In other words, the entire public safety communications system is strained under the delay.”

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

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