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Emergency communications system undergoes testing

November 02, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Washington County's consolidated 911 center and new emergency communications system are undergoing extensive testing as officials prepare for activation early next year, according to Fire and Emergency Services Director Kevin L. Lewis.

Operators will move into the new 911 center during the first few weeks of January, but will continue to use the current radio system before phasing in the new system when testing is complete, said Pete Loewenheim, communications maintenance manager.

The $27.8 million project has been in the works since 2001, and involves consolidating dispatchers for fire, rescue, and city, county and state law enforcement agencies into one state-of-the-art 911 center. It also switches to a radio system that will allow the agencies to communicate directly with each other and with the county's public works employees.

The projected activation date for the new communications system has been pushed back several times over the course of the project, with previous targets of July, then September, of this year.

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Loewenheim said officials set those target dates knowing there were "lots of unknowns" in the multifaceted project that could push back the activation. The project's many components include radio towers, new radios and complex electrical equipment, all of which must be fully tested before use, he said.

"One thing you can't do with a mission-critical system is say, 'It looks like it's working pretty well, let's go on the air,'" Loewenheim said. "It's got to work. If our computers go down, we could lose a life."

Loewenheim said that based on the pace at which the project is moving, he expects communications staff to begin operating at the new center, but on the current system, after the holidays, during the first two weeks in January.

One reason for choosing that time frame was the availability of the Verizon professionals who will need to switch the system over to direct 911 calls to the new center, Loewenheim said.

The county will phase in the new radio system as soon as possible, starting with law enforcement, then adding fire and rescue, then public works, as radio installation and training is completed for each respective group, Loewenheim said.

The testing process for the radio towers and control equipment involves a "burn-in" process, in which the equipment must be turned on for a long period of time to test its reliability, Loewenheim said. Experts also will be checking to make sure the transmitters are on frequency, the receivers have the necessary sensitivity, the antenna system is functioning properly and the backup power supplies put out the correct amount of power, he said.

In the new 911 center on Elliott Parkway near Williamsport, the dispatch console equipment also must be tested to make sure every mouse, keyboard, monitor and push-to-talk foot switch is working, Loewenheim said.

Meanwhile, the current emergency services dispatch center at 33 W. Washington St., which will be used as a backup center, is still being configured for use with the new system, he said.

The new radios have been installed in all law enforcement vehicles, but the county is just beginning to install them in fire and EMS vehicles, and has not gotten to the public works radios, Loewenheim said.

Construction on the new 911 center is complete, and a few of the county's fire and emergency services administrative employees have already moved into their new offices, Lewis said.

About 80 percent of the training has been completed for personnel to operate the new system, he said.

In addition to training for dispatchers and other communications staff, the new 911 center's classrooms are being used for advanced life support classes, law enforcement training, and a volunteer fire and rescue high school program, Lewis said.

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