Sitting in Dundalk's March chill, waiting for the four-day Joseph C. Palczynski hostage crisis to reach its grisly conclusion, Howard County's police S.W.A.T. team was there to help Baltimore County officers but had its usual communications problems.
"We would have to have someone listen to their radio and repeat it on Howard radios," said Howard police Capt. Bill McMahon, referring to Baltimore County's more sophisticated 800 megahertz system radios.
In November, during the devastating fire at the bottom of Ellicott City's Main Street, Howard's firefighters on the scene often couldn't be heard by their headquarters, outside the Patapsco River valley town.
Using Howard's radios, "you could be standing next to each other and not be able to talk. You want to pick up a radio and know it works. Sometimes you only get one chance," said retiring Howard fire Chief James Heller.
That's why Howard County is committed to building an emergency radio system that will equal those in surrounding counties. Howard has committed $22 million and expects to spend at least $5 million more before the system is complete in two more years, said Alan Ferragamo, deputy county Public Works director.
Aside from the 400-foot-tall antenna towers the system requires, the public won't see much of it. But people who want to learn more can attend a county meeting on the subject at 7:30 tonight at the George Howard Building in Ellicott City. Police Chief Wayne Livesay and Heller will be there, with other officials, to answer questions. The county also has submitted a resolution to the County Council seeking setback variances for three of the towers.
The county mailed letters about the new system to 1,600 residents who live within a half-mile radius of sites where new or higher towers are needed. All are on county-owned land. A final, shorter antenna will sit atop an office building in downtown Columbia. New, higher towers will be installed next to Howard High School, at Alpha Ridge near Interstate 70, and at the Dayton public works yard on Route 32. That tower must rise to 340 feet.
Existing towers will be used at Cooksville, at the Timbers of Troy golf course in Elkridge and on Penn Shop Road at Route 97.
Two new towers will be at the county's water reclamation plant in Savage near U.S. 1 and at the government office complex in Ellicott City, where the computer "brain" also will be and connected by wire to the county's 911 center.
The practical difference with the new system should be dramatic, said Patty Holtschneider, area sales manager for Motorola, the vendor, and Mike Ciampaglia, Motorola's project manager.
Holtschneider said the difference between the systems can be explained with a grocery store analogy. The current system is like people standing in one line waiting to check out, while the new system will be like people in three or four lines moving to whichever of several cashiers are open. Difficult reception areas - low places such as Main Street and the far corners of the county such as Elkridge, Savage and Lisbon - will be in touch.
The controlling computer "routes all traffic and keeps track of everyone. It's the heart of the system," Ciampaglia said. And "it has two of everything in it" to prevent breakdowns.
Instead of four radio channels, there will be 10, and the county can set up separate radio talk groups for other government agencies, such as Public Works, the county jail, school security personnel and bus drivers, or Recreation and Parks.
In addition, Holtschneider said priority codes will be built into the system, so a police officer with an emergency, for example, will never have to wait to talk.
County snowplow drivers will be able to communicate directly with state highway drivers during a storm - something that will save time and cut down on misunderstandings, Ferragamo said. "We're going to benefit in snow events," he said.
Now, drivers sometimes use cell phones to talk directly to state counterparts.
"There are over 2,000 users. It's not just for public safety," he said.
Because the county towers will be so high, Ferragamo said they may provide another benefit - providing space for privately owned antennas that could potentially reduce the number of towers.