It's something everyone takes for granted. In an emergency, you can pick up the phone, dial 911, and be confident that competent help is on the way.
And while that is the way emergency communications in Carroll generally works, engineers and county emergency officials say growth in population and sophisticated technology is making the current system obsolete.
When the system was installed in the 1960s, interference was the main problem. In the 1990s, interference is compounded by outdated equipment, channel congestion, limited coverage area and the inability of one emergency service to speak directly to another.
To change all that, the county is looking for ways to improve the system that transmits radio calls for volunteer fire departments, the sheriff's department and county government agencies.
Howard "Buddy" Redman, administrator of emergency services for the county's Emergency Operations Center, said the problems that afflicted the system 30 years ago are even more serious now.
"Nothing has been changed in the design of the system since then," said Redman, a member of the county's committee to decide how best to upgrade the system. "We have to look at the changes in technology and see what options are best for Carroll County."
All of the county's volunteer fire companies have reported to the commissioners and the Emergency Operations Center that they have experienced problems with the communications system.
Redman said those problems are especially frequent in North Carroll when fire engines and medic units are driving through valleys and transmissions are weakened.
Fire companies use low-band channels that often are interrupted by "skip," caused when signals from distant places overpower local communications.
Redman said dispatchers at the Emergency Operations Center often hear transmissions from California and Great Britain.
To help sort through all the communications options, the county hired Sachs Freeman and Associates Inc., a Landover radio communications consulting firm.
SFA's final report gives the county two major options.
The first, a $2.3 million upgrade of the county's current system, would bring some relief from the channel congestion, mask outside interference and eliminate outdated equipment, the report states.
While the upgrade would improve communications from a field unit to the base at the Emergency Operations Center, the county agencies that have limited ability to communicate with each other would lose that ability entirely, the report said.
SFA also states that an upgrade would "have difficulty in supporting a new police department."
A separate study commissioned by the County Commissioners found Carroll eventually will need a countywide police force.
The second option -- at $7.8 million -- uses an 800 megahertz system that would ensure a clear signal on a greater number of channels, eliminate all of the current system's problems and be able to handle communications for another police force, the report states.
Carroll emergency services now operate in the 33 megahertz to 155 megahertz range.
Redman said the one problem with the 800 megahertz system is that the Federal Communications Commission is accepting applications now for use of the channels.
"The FCC is offering 240 channels in this region, and Baltimore City has already requested 50," said Redman, who hopes the committee will make a decision in the next couple of months. "I'm afraid all the channels will be gone by the time the committee decides that the other solutions are unacceptable."
While the higher frequency system is favored by the communications consultant and some emergency services officials, others are adamantly opposed.
The Westminster Volunteer Fire Department sent a letter to the commissioners in February stating it could not support the consultant's preliminary findings.
Robert Cumberland, president of the Westminster department, said the main reason he is against the proposal is the price tag, which originally was estimated at $7.1 million. He said he is concerned about the cost more as a taxpayer than as a volunteer firefighter.
"I think we should be concerned about providing Carroll County with the best emergency services possible at the least expense to the taxpayer," he said.
Cumberland also said the report did not bring out all facts about the cost of converting members' personal equipment.
"Who's going to pay for monitors for the new system? The members bought the monitors they use in their homes to alert them to a fire," said Cumberland.
The County Commissioners rejected a last-minute request from emergency services for $3.4 million in the capital budget for fiscal year 1990-1991 to begin the project, saying the project was not justified adequately.
The commissioners did, however, tentatively include $7.2 million for the project, spread over four years.