- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
The volunteer firefighters who protect life and property in St. Mary’s County have trained for and worked real-life emergencies for hundreds of hours.
They know from this training and this experience how to attack a working fire. But each fire carries its own dangers and challenges.
So they rely on two things to do their work effectively and safely when they are fighting a blaze — the equipment they use and each other.
This is why they spend so much time maintaining and learning how best to use their equipment. It is why they work together in drills to prepare for the unexpected. It is why they place so much importance on coordinating with each other when they are on a fire scene.
But in St. Mary’s County right now, one key piece of equipment is unreliable. And because it is unreliable firefighters can’t communicate with each other effectively. And because they can’t communicate, some respected firefighters say, their lives and the lives of their comrades are in danger. So are those of rescue squad volunteers.
The faulty equipment is a new emergency radio communications system. It is not working reliably. The chief of the Bay District Volunteer Fire Department reports that firefighters have been reduced to shouting at each other from windows and rooftops when out on calls because the radios won’t reliably carry a message 100 feet.
This must be fixed, and quickly.
The county government is investing $34 million in a new emergency radio communications system intended to be significantly better that the one it replaced. Last spring, when the new radios were issued, the problem with communication dead spots didn’t get any better. Real improvement, firefighters were told, would have to wait until five new radio towers were erected.
But then the emergency communications system was switched to new radio frequencies. That’s when things went downhill. “We’ve gotten progressively worse, somehow,” Bay District Chief Shawn Downs said this week.
The frequencies were switched a couple of months ago. That sparked a controversy when people listening to radio scanners could no longer hear much of what was going on because the police calls are now encrypted.
There is value in a debate about whether police operations are enhanced by the encryption because the bad guys can’t hear police calls, or whether the public is being denied access and oversight to the work of law enforcement officers.
However, that discussion takes a back seat to the uncertainty that now exists each time firefighters and rescue squad volunteers go out on a call. As always, they never know what they may be facing as they race to the scene. Now they also don’t know if they’ll be able to talk to each other when they get there.
The company that sold the county government this communications system is responsible for making it work as intended, the director of the county’s emergency services and technology department says, and is working to isolate and fix problems as they are reported.
We all know that when new technology systems are rolled out they don’t always perform as expected. But rarely are lives at stake. Here they are. “Is that what it’s going to take?” Jessica Vallandingham, chief of the Mechanicsville Volunteer Rescue Squad, asked this week as she talked about the frustrating wait for the system to be fixed. “Someone to get hurt?”