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The current version of the scanners used by those in St. Mary’s County who listen to emergency radio frequencies either recreationally or because they are emergency responders will be made obsolete in 2014.
In January 2014, the emergency communications system in St. Mary’s County moves into the next generation of technology. Current scanners won’t work after that, but the paging system for the volunteer firefighters and paramedics will continue to function, said Bob Kelly, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Emergency Services and Technology.
Manufacturers will need to make a new kind of scanner, said Gene Talley, chief engineer for the Hollywood Volunteer Fire Department.
“We knew along the way there were going to be problems with scanners … but we really have no choice. The state of Maryland has already moved in that direction,” he said. Talley was one of six members of the technical evaluation committee who worked for years to recommend improvements in the coverage of portable radios for emergency first responders.
The current system provides 90 percent coverage in St. Mary’s for mobile radios inside vehicles, but portable radios, those carried by first responders, have less than 80 percent coverage.
There are swaths in the county where the portable radio coverage isn’t reliable, like in Golden Beach, Hollywood, Ridge, Valley Lee and the 7th District, Talley said.
St. Mary’s County government has entered into a $34 million contract with Harris Corp. for the next 15 years to move into the next generation of radio coverage. Almost $8 million goes for 566 mobile radios and 1,351 portable radios and control stations.
The county has four radio towers that don’t spread coverage out far enough to certain spots. A new tower is used in Bushwood, and another will be built in Valley Lee, and then another seven towers are planned to bring county coverage up to 95 percent. Portable radios also should have stronger coverage inside thick buildings like hospitals and big-box stores.
During this first phase of work, new scanners are expected to function, Talley said. However, some of the transmissions will be lost. The scanners will still receive dispatch calls, but some of the other chatter during the call would be on frequencies not accessible.
It’s partly to protect patient privacy, Talley said.
“You won’t hear the chitter-chatter when they get on the scene,” he said. “They’ll still hear the fire and EMS dispatch. They’ll know what it is.”
In the second phase of work, frequencies are rebanded. “There are no scanners [currently] on the market that will scan Phase II” of the county’s planned emergency communications system, Talley said.
“We’re not going to be the first” jurisdiction to move into the second phase, Kelly said. The current budget has it slated for fiscal 2015, which starts July 1, 2014.
“It’s going to take time,” he said.
Manufacturers will probably move to make scanners that can read the signals in new systems as more places move into the next generation of technology, Talley said.
“There was never any intention to prevent the general public from listening to fire and EMS except for the scrambled areas,” he said.
But under the new system it will be easier for other jurisdictions to communicate with one another in times of emergency.
On Sept. 11, 2001, the shortcomings were seen when emergency responders arrived at the Pentagon. “It really brought forth the problem we had with jurisdictions. All the people coming to the Pentagon couldn’t talk to one another,” Talley said.
As emergency communications moved to 800 megahertz, truncated systems, there was still no standard. Now there are common operability protocols, he said, called Project 25, that local, state and federal public safety agencies will use in North America.