Fire officials fret over inefficient radio communications network
Chief Gary Hamilton of the North Fayette Volunteer Fire Department stands on Estate Drive in The Hawthorne, a townhouse community that has radio dead zones -- areas where the radio signals that firefighters use to communicate often are garbled, broken or dropped. The problem can have dire consequences. "It could be the difference between life and death," Chief Hamilton said.
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Gary Hamilton is used to saying, "Can you hear me now?"
But the chief of the North Fayette Volunteer Fire Department doesn't say it just on his cell phone.
Chief Hamilton is among firefighters in several Allegheny County suburbs frustrated by the sometimes garbled, broken or dropped signals on the radio frequencies they use to communicate with each other and the county's emergency dispatchers.
"It's almost like if you're listening to the radio and you're hearing a lot of crackling and the reception's not very good," he said. "It could be the difference between life and death."
The problem isn't new -- the state's topography has made communication via mobile radios a challenge for years. But as other areas have improved, parts of southwest Allegheny County still have poor coverage, Bridgeville fire Chief Bill Chilleo said.
Concerned fire chiefs from 15 to 20 units in the Char-West Council of Governments have made enough noise to draw county Executive Rich Fitzgerald and Alvin Henderson, acting chief emergency services for Allegheny County, to their recent meeting at the Carnegie fire hall. They want county officials to commit to investing in equipment that will improve signals in remote areas.
"This is dangerous," Chief Chilleo said. "These are our lives at stake. We're trying to save people, and we can't communicate."
After being under the county's purview for more than a decade, changes may be on the way.
When Chief Hamilton is called to a fire in North Fayette, by protocol, he communicates with his team members en route to alert them of what to expect on the scene. When radioing his units in poor coverage areas, team members usually can't hear him.
Moving five feet can make all the difference, he said, but there's no way to tell.
"You might move halfway up the road and it'll be OK," agreed Carnegie Fire Department Chief John Kandracs, whose all-volunteer company also has experienced broken or dropped signals.
"We inherited these problems," Chief Henderson, the county's emergency services chief, explained. When suburban public safety radio communications moved to the county system in the early 2000s, the switch saved municipalities money and offered better technology than previously available with an individual emergency center. But it didn't ameliorate the existing concerns.
"We accepted the infrastructure as it was," Chief Henderson said. "We didn't have the magical wand to wave and say [here] is the best system."
Mr. Fitzgerald said he heard a lot about the communication problems during his campaign and when he was on council.
"This kind of came up again and again," he said.
Signal problems occur for emergency medical service and police units, too -- anyone equipped with a mobile radio. But the problem is paramount for fire crews; with so many volunteer fire companies in Allegheny County, it's hard to tell where chiefs and firefighters may be at any time.
Chief Paul Kashmer of Moon Run Volunteer Fire Department, one of three departments that serves Robinson, said he can't get a radio signal inside certain buildings, including the local mall.
"There's been times I've been at the mall and I've seen my firetrucks down the street and I'm wondering what's going on," he said.
What's more, Chief Kandracs said, is a concern that once firefighters are inside a building, they might not be able to send or receive a call on their radios.
"It would be life-threatening," he said.
Chief Henderson noted that it's difficult for a signal to penetrate concrete and brick.
To be sure, problems aren't occurring with every call. But it is happening in Moon Run, one of the county's busiest fire companies,, according to Chief Kashmer. (Chief Henderson couldn't confirm that because the county does not release that data.) As of June 18, that department received 260 calls this year -- five in one recent day. It receives about 400 calls every year, he said.
When a county dispatcher communicates with a suburban fire department, the radio signal is sent out to regional repeater sites. When a signal hits a repeater site, it can broadcast to a much larger area, Chief Henderson explained, sometimes a whole zone. (The county is divided into four zones, with the rivers as partitions.)
But many of these southwest communities are so far out, and already obstructed by the terrain, that the signal doesn't reach them. Chief Hamilton said the way he understands it, there aren't enough repeaters, which often are installed atop cell phone towers, sometimes as rented space. If there were enough, he said, the signal likely could reach into more of those hard-to-reach places.
"We're out here at the very tail end of the line, basically, is what I call it," Chief Kashmer said of his Moon Run department.
Chief Henderson explained that many different variables can obstruct a signal -- everything from solar flares to battery quality.
"To say [devices] are going to work 100 percent of the time -- that's a pretty tall order," he said.
Still, the county has pledged to build out the infrastructure. In the southwest, a frequency channel in Robinson may be the solution. At the May Char-West meeting, Chief Henderson and Mr. Fitzgerald said the county will work to acquire the channel currently belonging to Robinson and install repeaters that will reach into problem areas.
Some fire chiefs wondered why the change of hands hasn't already been done. Chief Henderson, who said he is in talks with Robinson about the transfer now, said one needs to own a channel to build on it. Robinson didn't immediately pass the channel over when it accepted the emergency services switch to county dispatch, and, in general, rights to frequencies are hard to come by these days.
"The county will not invest in the channel until we own the rights to it," Chief Henderson said.
The county faces an added challenge as it prepares to complete an unfunded federal mandate to narrow frequencies so that more can fit on a band. That process, which he likened to squeezing 40 cars into a 20-car lot, could affect existing radio signal and receivers.
The fire chiefs in these communities say they're cautiously optimistic. Grateful for the audience with county officials, they said they've aired concerns in the past that have fallen on deaf ears.
"The proof will be, is there improvement -- not just lip service," Mr. Fitzgerald said.
Chief Chilleo said: "There's an investment, and there's a technical dance that has to go on to make sure that all these sites are in the proper position."
Until then, some fire chiefs are getting so fed up, they place calls on their cell phones or send text messages instead of relying on their radios. It's not ideal, they maintain, but it's an option. Chief Henderson encourages "redundancy," or multiple communication tools.
Chief Henderson said he hopes to have the system built out by early fall. If the county acquires the Robinson channel, it could cost about $50,000 to make it operational. But the equipment in some of these companies is old, so that also could cause connectivity problems. With these changes -- and the required narrow-banding process under way -- county officials are asking for the chiefs' patience and pledge to maintain the communication that prompted the May meeting.
"Resources and money are going to dictate a lot of what we can do," Mr. Fitzgerald said. " I think a lot of chiefs and a lot of other municipal officials understand that."
Chief Henderson stressed the value of ongoing communication between the county and municipal units.
"It's a partnership. It's our system collectively," he said.
Chief Chilleo, of Bridgeville, one of the Char-West COG leaders, doesn't have signal problems in his borough. But he's been among the most vociferous advocates for better equipment because he sees the frustration among his fellow firefighters.
"If one of their guys gets hurt," he said, "it affects all of us firemen."
First Published June 28, 2012 12:00 am