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Drill exposes emergency communications flaws

June 21, 2002|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

Washington County emergency officials say a recent disaster drill highlighted problems with the county's emergency communications system and the need for it to be upgraded.

During an April disaster drill at Hagerstown Regional Airport, an insufficient number of emergency radio frequencies resulted in fire and rescue personnel interfering with and stepping on each other's transmissions, Airport Fire Chief Phil Ridenour said.

Ridenour said the communication problem resulted in calls for equipment and information not getting through in a timely manner, and the confusion hampered the ability of crews to hear calls.

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Washington County Commissioner William Wivell said he has been told an upgraded system might cost about $10 million.

"It's all going to come down to how we're going to pay for it," Wivell said. "It's going to be a tough issue."

Emergency service providers and police simulated a terrorist attack at the airport on April 20. The FAA requires a drill at airports every three years.

Ridenour, who is the chief of the Maugansville Volunteer Fire Co., said he's encountered the same communication problem in real-life situations.

"It gets frustrating if you're out there and you need to get a message out to somebody else, and you keep getting walked over," Ridenour said.

Director of Emergency Services Joe Kroboth said the county is in the early stages of planning an upgraded countywide communications system, a project that would cost several million dollars and take years to complete.

"We need additional operating channels," Kroboth said.

He said the county has received approval from the FCC for 10 new frequencies for the new system.

Ridenour said the county's fire and rescue crews currently have one main dispatch channel and three tactical channels. No calls are dispatched on the tactical channels, but emergency personnel may switch to those if there's a lot of activity on the main channel, he said.

All channels were tied up during the drill, he said.

Ridenour presented the evaluation of the drill to the Washington County Commissioners on Tuesday.

Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook, who was present for part of the drill, said during the meeting that the communications problem was obvious.

"If you were to play that tape back, you'd hear nothing but people talking over the top of one another," Ridenour said in response to Snook's comments. "You had to wait on communications going back and forth before it could be dispatched."

Kroboth said an upgraded system would improve the clarity of transmissions.

He said firefighters enter buildings and their transmissions to crews outside sometimes are cut off.

"The fear is that they'll need assistance and not be able to communicate," he said.

Washington County Sheriff Charles Mades said he wasn't aware of any problems with police communication at the drill, but he supports an upgraded countywide communications system.

"It's just that the system is getting old," Mades said. "It's time to update."

Mades said the Sheriff's Department's radio system so old that when equipment breaks it's hard to find replacement parts.

He said deputies depend on their radios as much as they depend on their guns. "When those things go down, that's a problem," Mades said.

Despite communications problems, officials said they were satisfied with the outcome of the drill.

Police and emergency personnel responded to a mock attack from terrorists. The scenario called for the terrorists to discharge Sarin gas into the airport tower and blow up a plane on the ground.

The fake terrorists also got involved in a "shootout" with two off-duty Sheriff's deputies, causing the terrorists to flee to a nearby hangar.

The tower drill was shut down early after someone incorrectly reported that shots had been fired at the tower.

Ridenour said a shooting at the tower was not part of the script and caused responding crews to pull back.

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