A critical power outage in 2019 has had Montgomery County, MD working hard to beef up its emergency communications system. Reports published at the time determined that there was a short stretch of time where nearly all emergency channels were unavailable, leaving police and rescue personnel unable to speak with each other for 13 hours. Bethesda Magazine reports that many discussions have taken place since then, with the county now ready to move ahead with its plans to revamp the system.
“This year’s been full of a lot of bad news, but this is some good news that we’re finally at the end and will have this new radio system soon,” stated Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Services Division Chief John Kinsley.
County officials have said that the communication system has been problematic for years. One individual said that they were even led to search Amazon for parts to repair antiquated equipment. The slow progress towards modernization has been hampered by key issues like budget disputes, and sparring within the community about tower placement.
After the critical failure in 2019, Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich changed his adversarial stance and lent his support to allowing communication towers to be built on recommended sites. New plans call for doubling the number of available towers in Montgomery County to 22.
The outdated system has multiple radio channels available. Constant repairs, however, keep some channels out of the service to be repaired and quickly shuffled back into service when other channels go on the fritz. “We are essentially playing whack-a-mole with these radio failures,” said Fire and Rescue Services Capt. Dallas Lipp.
The new system will be managed by Motorola, who is under warranty to fix any problems that occur during the first year at no cost to the county. Additionally, the plan includes “technology refreshes” at five and 10 year intervals, so the system can continue to upgrade. The new equipment should reach 98.8 percent of the county, bettering the current capability of approximately 80 percent. A total of $110 million has been allotted for the communications upgrade.
While there now appears to be agreement that the emergency communication system overhaul is a necessity, the issue of encrypted channels remains a sore point. On one hand, barring the public from access to police channels is a safety feature for law enforcement; some feel that transparency is a greater concern. A final decision on whether to encrypt, or partially encrypt, the new communications systems is still up for debate.
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