On Monday morning at 6 a.m., St. Mary’s County switched its old analog emergency radio communications system over to a digital one.
Things could have gone badly, but they didn’t. There were a few glitches, but the next generation system is now up and running. It is the first phase of three to provide better radio coverage across the county for emergency responders.
The system was tested and tested some more before the switch, and testing continued this week. “We’re in a good position right now,” said Bob Kelly, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Emergency Services and Technology.
More than 1,500 new radios have been distributed to fire and rescue services, sheriff’s deputies and other branches of local government, and only a handful of radios had trouble configuring to the new system, he said.
In some cases, “some folks didn’t get the word we moved over to the new system,” he said.
For those who listen in on calls, many emergency frequency scanners went quiet this week. Fire and rescue dispatch calls will still be accessible on digital scanners, but police frequencies are now encrypted and inaccessible at the request of the sheriff, Kelly said.
“This is a major step for us — we can have uncompromised response to most events,” said Sheriff Tim Cameron (R). On the old system, criminals could monitor police communications on the scanner and on other mobile devices, he said. They would know when police started on a response to a crime in progress.
Under the old system, the identities and information about victims of crime would sometimes be broadcast, which needs to be protected, he said. “The goal is to have secure communications,” he said, to protect identities and investigations.
Kelly said there was no intention to block citizens from listening to emergency calls. “We moved to [a] new radio system to make sure our first responders have the best system they possibly can have,” he said.
Last year, the county commissioners entered into a 15-year, $34 million contract with Harris Corp. to move to the next generation of communications and to add more radio towers to provide coverage to portable and mobile emergency radios in 95 percent of St. Mary’s County.
New towers went up in Valley Lee and Bushwood to provide more coverage in those areas to augment the four towers in Mechanicsville, Leonardtown, California and Dameron. The first phase of the project is almost complete, but there is still more coverage testing to do, Kelly said.
“We won’t get to 95 percent [coverage] until we’re done with phase 3,” he said. “Until we get all three phases done there’s going to be communication holes — kind of like a jigsaw puzzle.”
In the next phases, seven more towers are scheduled to go up at Charlotte Hall, Chaptico, Oakville, Ridge, Hollywood, Golden Beach and southern Leonardtown.
“That is who we’re doing this for, the first responders,” Kelly said. Should they get into trouble in the field and need help, their radios need to work, he said.
After the new digital communications system went live, the emergency services and technology department encountered three issues.
There was a volume issue for fire and rescue dispatch tones. “Basically we had to turn up that volume,” Kelly said.
There was an issue with tones overlapping on calls to multiple departments. “The pager didn’t recognize when the tone ended and when it began,” he said.
There is also an issue on simulcast calls to Maryland State Police and sheriff’s deputies where the configuration needs to be adjusted.
“Nothing’s been dropped. Our dispatchers just have to say it twice” in the meantime, Kelly said.
To listen in
A live audio stream of St. Mary’s County fire and rescue calls is available on Crimes and Court page of The Enterprise’s website. Go to www.somdnews.com/section/news20 and click on the St. Mary’s County Dispatch Feed link. For information on how to configure digital scanners visit www.stmarysmd.com/radio.