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Staff writers

The new $34 million emergency services radio system put in play this year in St. Mary’s has some firefighters screaming. They say that is sometimes the only way they can hear each other, when the new frequencies won’t even carry a message 100 feet.

Bay District volunteer firefighters said this week that they’ve heard no indications that the situation will improve anytime soon. And the trouble isn’t just in Bay District’s first-due areas of Lexington Park and California, according to the chief of the Mechanicsville Volunteer Rescue Squad.

“It’s very, very concerning,” Jessica Vallandingham said Monday, and she takes no comfort in the fact that the communication breakdown hasn’t yet resulted in direct tragedy to her squad members, as they wait for county officials to fix the problem. “Is that what it’s going to take?” she asked. “Someone getting hurt?”

Bay District Fire Chief Shawn Downs said Monday that the county’s fire and rescue volunteers were not permitted to take part in choosing the new radio system eventually contracted to Harris Corp., and that they were only brought in to test the new system after all decisions were made and implemented.

“Why would you test something after it was installed?” Downs asked, noting that performance remained about the same when the hardware was distributed last spring, until new radio frequencies went into use in August and a steady decline in signal strength began.

“We’ve gotten progressively worse, somehow. You cannot talk to anybody,” the fire chief said, recalling problems during a kitchen fire last weekend at a Patuxent Park residence, when the radios lapsed into a scan mode for more than three minutes.

“The guys were reduced to yelling out the windows,” Downs said.

Radio transmissions that don’t go through in locations known as “dead spots” still affected about 25 percent of Bay District’s first-due response area before the new radios and frequencies were placed in service, the chief said.

The firefighters were told that problem would not be eradicated until five new towers are in place, but they did not expect to lose the service they had.

“I’d say we’re less than 50 percent,” Downs said, and that problem continued last week when he was atop a restaurant in Lexington Park, and he tried to make a radio call to firefighters on the ground, less than 100 feet away. “They could not hear me,” the fire chief said. “I had to yell down from the roof.”

Richard Sullivan, a Bay District vice president, said “If people can’t communicate, somebody’s going to get hurt, or end up dying because of this. Thirty or 40 seconds [in lost communications] makes a big difference.”

Bob Kelly, director of the St. Mary’s County Department of Emergency Services and Technology, said he is aware there have been issues with the communications system.

“We’re 60 days into a brand-new system. As the issues are reported, we’re responding to them. Is Harris working on this? Absolutely,” he said. St. Mary’s County government entered into a 15-year contract with Harris Corp. to operate the communications system.

“We’ve been running tests since Thursday and we take 24-hour chunks of data and send it to the Harris team” for evaluation, Kelly said. “There may be something else outside the system that’s affecting us.”

One problem already identified was a faulty global-positioning receiver on the radio tower in Mechanicsville that was causing interference. “It was just screaming out there,” Kelly said.

As for what’s causing the most recent radio troubles, he said it’s too early to say what it is. “If it is a problem with our equipment, the vendor has to fix it,” he said.

Edward Evans, the president of the local Fraternal Order of Police and a lieutenant with the St. Mary’s County Sheriff’s Office, said Tuesday that law officers are encouraged to report any radio problems they have, so the department of emergency services and technology can address the problem. “As the issues come to light, they’re adjusting the towers to cover any dead spots. Once they do that, it is slowly improving,” Evans said. “These same dead areas were [a problem with] the old system.”

Downs said he called Leonardtown this week to further discuss the issue, and was told there had been a “systemwide outage.

“They know the signal strength is lower than its ever been,” the Bay District fire chief said. “I believe it’s [from] dead spots, due to signal strength. What’s causing that, I don’t know. If it’s interference, why has [that] never affected us before?”

The new radios have posed some problems for security officers at the county courthouse in Leonardtown, where they said this week that transmissions sometimes are garbled, come across at different volumes or cease when the radios go into scan mode. “We get behind a brick wall, and sometimes it won’t go through,” one officer said.

At Mechanicsville, Vallandingham said Monday, “My biggest concern is my providers’ safety. They don’t have communications, no one can hear them. They can get hurt on the scene, [because] they cannot get the resources they need. We can’t interact with the police anymore.”