Firefighters sound alarm for radio link Lineboro volunteers find dead spots in new communication system

'Can anybody copy me?'

Antenna tower to bring relief in six months

stopgap help planned

January 25, 1998|By James M. Coram | James M. Coram,SUN STAFF

Members of Lineboro Volunteer Fire Department are fed up with the sounds of silence they experience when they use Carroll County's $8.2 million emergency communications system.

And they want an immediate remedy.

Relief is coming, county officials say, but not for at least six months.

To eliminate the many dead spots Lineboro firefighters experience on the new nine-channel radio system, the county will have to erect a 400-foot-high antenna in the area.

That will entail buying or leasing property and getting local and federal permission to erect a tower.

The antenna and additional transmitting equipment will cost about $750,000. Carroll's budget department has recommended that the expenditure be included in the county capital budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1.

J. Michael Evans, county public works director, said it would take about six weeks to build the tower -- if the county put it on its fast-track agenda. It could become operational about three months after receiving Federal Communications Commission approval, he said.

Meanwhile, the county plans to move a low-frequency transmitter from Sykesville to Lineboro within two weeks to help the fire company communicate with Carroll's emergency operations center in Westminster, Evans said.

Only Lineboro and Manchester still use low-frequency transmitters. Lineboro uses them out of necessity because of dead spots with the new system, and Manchester continues to use them to maintain contact with Lineboro because it is the first fire company alerted when backups are needed in Lineboro.

For most of the county, the new system allows users to have uninterrupted, one-on-one communication with a dispatcher -- something that wasn't possible under the old system.

Of even more importance to firefighters, each radio has an emergency function button that identifies users and activates an alarm telling a dispatcher the user needs help.

Every branch of county government converted to the new emergency system in July. The county made the change despite knowing the system would not work in Lineboro, fire company President Linas Saurusaitis angrily told county officials at a meeting in the firehouse last week.

Lineboro's firefighters feel betrayed because "county officials told us absolutely [in a May 2 meeting] that we wouldn't be at risk," Saurusaitis said.

Double standard?

The lack of communication has not led to a life-threatening situation, but the possibility is there, he said.

Police officers would never tolerate not being able to talk to dispatchers in emergencies, but the county is letting it happen with Lineboro firefighters, Saurusaitis said.

Former Lineboro Fire Chief John Krebs illustrated that for County Commissioners Donald I. Dell and Richard T. Yates by playing a tape of emergency communications that took place during a house fire at 3 a.m. Nov. 3.

Dispatchers in Westminster were able to hear Krebs, the firetruck driver on the call, but he was unable to hear them, the tape shows.

"Can anybody copy me on any channel?" he asks on the tape.

Silence.

"Is anybody copying?" he asks again.

"Advise 72 we're copying on low band," the dispatcher tells a unit from Manchester.

But Krebs "heard nothing," he told the commissioners.

"Nobody is complaining about what this [new communications] system can do," Krebs said. "But when it doesn't work, it's a pain in the butt."

Sensitivity a problem

What is especially frustrating, fire company members told the commissioners, is that the new system can work fine one moment and fail the next at the same location.

The radio signal is so variable that chlorophyll on tree leaves can limit its range, said firefighter John F. Warner, a transmitter supervisor for WBAL radio.

"I can't talk [to the fire chief] four houses down" in Lineboro, he said, "but I can sit in a steel enclosure in my office [in Baltimore] and communicate" with officials in Westminster.

"We've got to help them," Yates said after the meeting. "We can't have them in danger. If they can't communicate with people, that's a problem. We've got to find a way to make [the system] work for them."

Saurusaitis and Warner said they predicted for years that the system would fail in Lineboro without a giant antenna.

"We knew six years ago we would have a problem," Saurusaitis said.

The county has made "no progress" toward fixing the problem, "and we're at the end of our rope," he said. "I don't know where we go from here.

"This is our last attempt to be diplomatic" with county officials, he said.

Shortcuts alleged

Warner said he is "disappointed and disgusted" that the county tried to save money by putting the communications equipment on the same towers used by a cellular phone company. The 200-foot-plus towers are about half the size needed to provide coverage in the Lineboro area, Warner said.

Although the fire company provided the county with computer modeling showing that cellular phone towers wouldn't be high enough to provide coverage in the Lineboro area, the county used the smaller towers anyway, Warner said.

Pub Date: 1/25/98

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