9-1-1 Radio Transmissions Loud and Clear in Lancaster, Pa.
A line of gusty thunderstorms blowing into Lancaster County often exposed just how ill-equipped the county-run police and fire radio system was for monster emergencies.
Accidents closing rain-pelted highways. Wind-whipped trees crashing onto power lines. Lightning sparking fires.
In the first minutes dispatchers in the windowless, softly-lit communications center in Manheim would relay scores of calls and up to 400 of them in an hour or two – the number on a routine day.
In those conditions, your radio system has to work.
But across the county, as police officers, firefighters, medics and fire police leapt into action, they took along radios with too few frequencies to handle the tsunami of chatter, too little coverage to reach every hill and dale, and no capacity for a commander on the scene to talk with responders from other jurisdictions.
“Everybody knew that was how it was,” said Michael Weaver, director of Lancaster County-Wide Communication, “and you tried to work with it.”
After years of planning, a new radio system is now up and running. Weaver’s breathing easier.
Once when a booming storm set eight scattered blazes, he knew tragedy was only one garbled transmission away.
“Thank God that never happened,” Weaver said. “But you had the potential.”
The deficiencies were evident as far back as the late 1980s when Lancaster County had 110,000 fewer residents than today’s 533,000. A task force in 1989 recommended modernizing. Studies in 1992 and 1996 concurred.
Since then, it’s been a long slog – complicated by false starts and a vendor bankruptcy – to a new system.
Starting with the county’s public works department last Oct. 6 and finishing with first responders May 11, Weaver’s agency phased in a $26.4-million digital system operating with 25 towers.
Improvements and glitches
The reviews, so far, are mostly positive.
Responders say transmissions, in general, are loud and clear, and radios work in places they never did.
Route 441 – where the highway slices through the rock of Chickies Hill – is a case in point.
“If we were in the 441 cut, we had nothing,” West Hempfield Police Chief Mark Pugliese said. A workaround involved stationing an officer on the hilltop to relay messages to county radio from officers in the cut.
But now, Pugliese said, transmissions along Chickies Hill are clear as a bell.
Same goes for the Susquehanna River, Michael Fitzgibbons of Susquehanna Valley EMS said. “If we were doing a river rescue, we had no communications with 9-1-1,” Fitzgibbons said. “Now you have that.”
Transmissions are also often possible from inside big buildings, including school basements, said Timothy Baldwin, deputy director of county-wide communications.
“It’s critical for a firefighter’s safety that everybody at the fire can communicate with each other,” Lititz Fire Chief Ron Oettel said. “For the first crew entering a working fire, the radio is their lifeline to the outside world.”
But some buildings, such as the new Urban Outfitters fulfillment center near Gap, will likely have spotty coverage, Baldwin said.
Before the system started going live last October, the contractor, a consultant and county staff last summer painstakingly tested the system’s geographic coverage.
Crews crisscrossed Lancaster County, consulting a map dividing the county’s 945 square miles (Susquehanna River included) into quarter-mile squares in and around Lancaster and half-mile squares everywhere else. They stopped in each one of the more than 4,000 grids and ran tests.
Iowa-based Rockwell Collins was contracted to build a system that boosted countywide coverage from 86 percent to 95 percent.
Testing found that hand-held radios worked in 97.8 percent of the grids. Radios mounted in vehicles hit 99 percent.
Ephrata and Christiana, however, are some of the trouble spots.
Atmospheric conditions sometimes cause signals from television station WFDC in Washington, D.C., to disrupt communications here, Weaver said. A small light on the radio goes red.
“Sometimes it lasts a few minutes,” Lt. Thomas Shumaker of the Ephrata police force said. “Sometimes an hour or more.”
A fix is being sought.
A key feature of the new system is interoperability, allowing the 5,200 users – cops, firefighters, fire police and public works crews – to talk to each other.
Just like an AM radio can’t pick up FM signals, under the old system police operated on a band incompatible with the one used by EMS and firefighters.
Terry Kauffman, who was a county commissioner in the 1990s, recalls how challenging communications were during a blizzard as dispatchers tried to get help to the snowed-in victim of a heart attack.
Assisting at the emergency management center, Kauffman found himself the middleman relaying messages coming from a patrol car, a snow plow and an ambulance – none of which could talk with the other – to different dispatchers.
“After it’s all over, you sit there and think, ‘Oh, my, there’s got to be a better way,'” Kauffman said.
Now, there is.
Fire departments and medics still have dispatch channels separate from police, but a twist of a knob unites them for a major incident.
The integrated system proved useful at Mountville’s Memorial Day parade, said Pugliese, the West Hempfield police chief. Fire police manning blocked intersections easily alerted police at the head of the parade when a car pulled from a driveway and entered the parade route.
The system has smaller features that make big differences.
One is an orange “panic” button on every radio. When held, it activates alarms at every console in the communications center signaling that the radio user needs help. Soon-to-be-installed software will pinpoint the location of the distress signal.
In addition, police can use tactical channels and encrypt messages so that a suspect can’t listen in on police operations.
And another feature makes sure a lost radio can’t be used if it falls into the wrong hands. County control simply shuts it off.
On a recent Tuesday, an intense thunderstorm rolled through Lancaster County. Trees came crashing down, roads flooded, alarms went off.
County radio handled hundreds of calls, the kind of volume that would have left the old system gasping.
“It was a good test” of the new system, Weaver said. “The system got hammered. It didn’t skip a beat.”