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Better emergency communications system sought

Finding a replacement for the county's 30-year-old emergency communications system will be a priority over the next several year

Finding a replacement for the county's 30-year-old emergency communications system will be a priority over the next several year

January 16, 2003|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

Washington County Commissioners President Gregory I. Snook said this week the county's 30-year-old emergency communications system has serious deficiencies and an approximately $15 million replacement will be a top county priority over the next several years.

"I would think that would rank fairly high up there on the list," Snook said.

County Director of Public Works Gary Rohrer said Wednesday the project would be phased into the county's Capital Improvement Program over the next two to three years.

He said there's a chance the new system might cost less than anticipated, but that it would still be in the multimillion dollar range.

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The project would be among the most expensive in county history, officials said.

The County Commissioners on Tuesday heard reports from police, fire and rescue and county officials on the number of problems emergency personnel face while trying to communicate with each other or with dispatchers.

They said a weak radio system causes interference and sometimes fails entirely while crews are responding to calls.

The new system would speed up communications and allow county police and fire and rescue personnel who are out in the field to communicate directly with noncounty agencies, including the Hagerstown Police Department.

The current system does not allow such communication.

County Communications Maintenance Manager Pete Loewenheim said the current system is out of date and was at the end of its service life about 15 years ago.

Washington County Sheriff's Department Capt. Douglas Mullendore told the commissioners that deputies have had several problems with the system failing, which have hampered investigations and put officers' safety at risk.

When a West Virginia school teacher was found murdered in the Sandy Hook area on Nov. 15, Mullendore said the radio system failed and sheriff's department officials had to communicate using cell phones.

"That's just not acceptable," he said.

A few years ago during a mock school shooting at Williamsport High School, two deputies who had confronted the shooter inside the building couldn't communicate with anybody outside.

"In a real-life situation, these two guys would've probably been dead ..." Mullendore said. "As far as the sheriff's department is concerned, we're just waiting for a disaster to happen."

If police officials arrive at a scene and travel more than a quarter-mile from their vehicles, their portable radios are not able to communicate with dispatchers or other vehicles, Loewenheim said.

Mullendore said that poses problems if a deputy is chasing someone by foot, for example.

"That pretty much renders him without radio contact," Mullendore said Monday. "They're basically on their own."

Emergency personnel who are in one vehicle also cannot directly relay messages to personnel in other vehicles, Loewenheim said. In order to do so, messages must be sent from the vehicle to the dispatch center, and then a dispatcher must relay that message to the other vehicle.

Joe Kroboth, the county's director of emergency services, said fire and rescue companies also have problems with poor reception and communicating with other departments.

Loewenheim said the new system would make it easy for police to transmit data - such as police reports - electronically from cruisers to headquarters so they can spend more time out on the roads rather than heading back to the station to write the reports.

Rohrer said the county is trying to track down federal and state grant money to help fund the project, but so far officials aren't having much luck. He said federal Homeland Security funding currently does not apply to emergency communications system improvements.

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