Officials unveil communications system for first responders

Emergency network to cover central Md.

February 15, 2005|By Laura Barnhardt | Laura Barnhardt,SUN STAFF

During the Howard Street Tunnel fire, firefighters from the city and Baltimore County had to exchange radios to talk to one another as they battled the underground inferno.

After a tanker truck flipped off an Interstate 95 overpass last year and exploded, some emergency officials used cell phones to get instructions. And during the 92-vehicle pileup in October on Interstate 95, some emergency workers relied on 911 dispatchers to communicate with others on the scene because there was no regional emergency communications network, authorities said.

Yesterday, officials from the city and Baltimore, Howard, Harford, Carroll and Anne Arundel counties unveiled what they hope will be a solution to the problem: the Central Maryland Area Radio Communications system.

Known as CMARC, the network includes five channels that are accessible to any emergency worker using an 800-megahertz radio, officials said.

"It doesn't matter what uniform you're wearing," said Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr., who is newly elected chairman of the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, which oversaw the project. "It's going to make a huge difference. ... The people who need help will get it faster."

The system will initially cover the city and areas within the Baltimore Beltway, around Baltimore-Washington International Airport and along Interstate 95, said Ernie Crist, manager of Emergency Services for Harford County, who led the team of officials working on the CMARC project.

Crist tested the system at an afternoon news conference at M&T Bank Stadium, showing that antennas in the city and Baltimore and Howard counties were working.

While most of the officials talked about recent disasters requiring regional emergency responses, including Tropical Storm Isabel, Howard County Executive James N. Robey, a former police chief, told the crowd of reporters and local officials about his experience as a rookie officer chasing jewelry store robbers who had taken hostages.

As he followed the suspects' car into Baltimore County, he said, he wasn't able to radio to the other county officers that hostages were in the vehicle. In the end, a hostage was fatally shot by police.

"It doesn't have to be a tunnel fire or an Isabel," he said. "It can be a simple pursuit. ... This is a win-win for all of us."

The $700,000 cost of installing eight antennas and buying 284 radios for distribution in Annapolis, Baltimore City and Baltimore, Carroll and Harford counties was covered by a U.S. Department of Homeland Security grant, officials said.

All of the county and city agencies have some 800-megahertz radios already, Crist said.

State agencies, including the Maryland State Police and Maryland Transportation Authority Police, are buying 800-megahertz radios, he said.

Some departments, including Baltimore County's police and fire departments, will have to reprogram their radios to use the new network, but incident commanders and emergency responders close to the county's borders have CMARC-compatible radios, said Richard Muth, director of Baltimore County Emergency Management.

Programming should be complete within six months, and will allow other agencies such as the county's health and public works departments to use the system too, Muth said.

As part of the project, Baltimore City sold Anne Arundel County - for $1 - a 200-foot steel radio tower to be erected in the Brooklyn Park area as part of the network. The city no longer needed it, officials said.

An additional 20 to 30 antennas and towers will begin to be installed this summer to expand the coverage area of the radio system to include the metropolitan area, Crist said. The $5 million cost will be funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Justice, he said.

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