“Landslide” of issues Plague PA County’s new public radio system
NORTH EAST, PA – Lt. Mike Kelley of the Crescent Hose Co. navigates a scenic stretch of Route 5 in the department’s red fire engine while the Northeast Fire Chief Dave Meehl lights the red light on the truck’s cellular.
A voice can be heard over the radio. It is incomprehensible.
“We’re just picking up clutter,” says Kelley as the truck heads east toward the New York state line. “We can’t even send.
“Almost every time you actually need to talk on the radio, you can’t,” he says.
Meehl turns away from the passenger seat with a blue mask over his face and explains that the red light in the cellular network is a sign of a weak signal.
“I’m not trying to throw anyone under the bus,” he says, “but we’re not getting the service we should be getting.”
Along the lakefront and across swaths of farmland running north and east of the district, first responders often have trouble contacting dispatchers and each other.
You are not alone.
In neighboring Harborcreek Township, for example, the head of the Fairfield Hose Co., Jeff Hawryliw, also has “patchy” coverage along the entire lakeshore and in other areas of the township.
In the past two months, Fairfield firefighters responded to three water rescues and a structural fire in which their portable radios – the handsets carried into the field by first responders – did not work “within five feet of each other”.
“It was a landslide of little problems that compounded into a bigger problem,” said Hawryliw.
JACK HANRAHAN | ERIE, PA, TIMES NEWS
Erie County’s new next-generation public safety radio system, a $ 26.5 million project that included new mobile and handheld radios that operate on a digital frequency, has resolved communication problems made more portable and mobile by a previous patchwork quilt Radios used by security departments across the county.
The new and improved communication towers have fixed many of the dead spots that existed in places such as low lying areas and in buildings.
The project largely achieved what it set out to do, said John Grappy, director of public safety for Erie County and Kathy Dahlkemper, executive for Erie County.
“The improvement in communications has been phenomenal,” added James Rosenbaum, assistant fire chief for the West Ridge Volunteer Fire Department in Millcreek Township and chairman of the Erie County’s Public Safety Advisory Committee. “We can communicate directly with the neighboring departments we were deployed to support. Previously we had a mix of frequencies. Some we had access, some we didn’t,” including fire departments in McKean, Fairview, Girard and the city of Erie.
However, the officers also acknowledge that there are still areas in the county where it is difficult for first responders to communicate with the dispatchers and vice versa and sometimes with each other. These areas include North East and Edinboro.
“The concerns expressed in recent correspondence from our first responders are valid, and district officials share the concerns,” Grappy said in a statement Friday. “… We have consistently expressed the urgency to resolve the reporting problems.”
The next-generation public radio system also affects the fact that when the county applied for licenses from the Federal Communications Commission for its 18 communication towers, the Canadian government did not allow the towers to operate at the strength the county wanted.
Grappy and Dahlkemper said they won’t complete the project until the contractor, EF Johnson, fixes the issues the company is doing at its own expense.
“I’ve been to numerous meetings with EF Johnson and the other partners myself,” said Dahlkemper. “I’ve been talking very loudly about how we need to move this forward as soon as possible. And we need to find a solution. I think we’ve found a pretty decent temporary fix until we get that permanent fix.” . “
In February, EF Johnson officials released a report identifying four areas where the system was not working properly.
In Edinboro, State Route 99 lies between two ridges and the university is in “recessed terrain”. Neither received radio frequencies at full strength from the nearby communications tower.
In Albion, a tower there used a directional antenna facing north, causing problems along the southwestern border of the county. A new antenna with 360 degree coverage was installed.
In Millcreek Township, first responders connected to the wrong transmitter in one area of the simulcast system, resulting in poor call quality.
In the north east in particular, the contractor identified two problems, mostly affecting areas north and east of the district. Meehl notes that these areas include the lakefront, including Freeport Beach; North East Community Park with beach access; North East Marina as well as large arable land.
The first problem was with the antenna on top of the Mercyhurst North East buildings on Route 89 and West Division Street. A ridge northeast of the site “shadowed” the northeast from full radio frequency saturation and “spoke back” to the radio system, the EF Johnson report said.
A new antenna was installed.
“This replacement allows a higher gain antenna to provide additional feedback that was not previously needed,” noted EF Johnson officials in their February report.
Grappy noted that EF Johnson placed the original antenna in Mercyhurst North East to solve coverage issues.
The second problem identified by EF Johnson was with the state communications tower in the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation salt dome on Route 89 south of Interstate 90. Erie County was granted permission to place its own antenna on the tower as part of the project. However, this antenna had been hampered “by direct interference” by a transmitting antenna that the state placed on the tower after the county installed its antenna. The county has since moved its antenna on top of the tower to clear the interference.
However, a long-term solution would require the installation of an antenna on an existing tower across the state line in neighboring Ripley, New York. Erie County officials and EF Johnson have spoken to federal officials in New York state about a memorandum of understanding that would allow Erie County to locate equipment in Ripley.
The county has applied for two FCC licenses through EF Johnson – one for the planned Ripley Tower and another in Edinboro to improve communications on the Edinboro University campus. An antenna would be placed either on the Edinboro University library or on the district’s water tower.
Since this would require approval from the Federal Communication Commission, EF Johnson cannot estimate how long the project would take.
The county and its emergency services have been discussing the need for a new radio system for more than three decades since the Albion tornado in 1985.
Work on the next generation public radio system began five years ago.
Law enforcement switched to the new system in late September, and fire and rescue services made the transition in early October.
Prior to the transition, or “cutover,” EF Johnson conducted field tests with the help of first responders at 2,400 different points across the county. The test was 98% successful, so the county and contractor decided to move forward with the transition, Grappy said.
The new radio system should offer at least “95% coverage” in 95% of cases.
Problems were discovered both before and after the transition, Grappy said.
Despite the gaps in coverage, Grappy finds that the system is still better than its predecessor. In the past, first responders could talk on their radios, but they had no way of knowing if dispatchers or others could hear them. New radios have a so-called “continue” tone to indicate that someone on the other end is listening.
The system also has an on-site function that allows first-aiders at the emergency site (but not with dispatchers) to talk to each other if they are out of range of the larger radio system.
To address the problems in the northeast, the county plans to install a temporary tower in the North East Marina.
While Meehl said he understood that a permanent resolution won’t come overnight, he’s frustrated with how long it took the county and EF Johnson to put the temporary tower in place.
Meehl said Erie County and the contractor have been too slow to respond to concerns from the county, the community, and the two companies it oversees – Crescent Hose Co. and Full Hose Co.
Meehl said he was told six months ago that the county intended to build a makeshift tower.
“And then all of a sudden March hit and the virus and everything else and that seemed to be to blame for everything,” he said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. “You know, ‘everything is delayed because of the virus, people can’t get together to do it, parts are back on order.’ This took weeks and months. The companies decided at one meeting that we needed to get it out and take (concern) to the next level. “
Dahlkemper said COVID-19 actually caused several delays in work on the temporary tower and other repairs.
“That’s part of it,” said Dahlkemper. “Everything you’ve tried in the past five or six months has taken longer. Whether you’re talking about equipment, whether you’re talking about the actual people doing the job, all of that. So, yes, some of it has been delayed . I don’t use COVID as an excuse, but it’s just the reality we all live with. “
Erie County said Friday that the equipment was ordered and received. Mobilcom, a provider of the equipment, is installing the temporary portable tower in the Erie County’s Department of Public Safety. It will be deployed in the North East Marina by the end of August at the latest.
Hawryliw believes that better field tests would have benefited the system before it was introduced. Grappy said more testing will be done soon.
Hawryliw cites radio program problems and inadequate indoor coverage as his concerns about the system.
Both Hawryliw and Meehl believe that the system can work as intended if both temporary and long-term repairs are carried out.
“I understand to some extent with COVID,” said Hawryliw. “I understand where their hands might be tied. But that’s public safety. Our jobs never stop, 24/7/365.
“The county is taking steps to mitigate this, but it’s too slow,” he continued. “Months and months and months. Almost a year has passed. It should never have come to that.”
© 2020 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.)
Visit the Erie Times-News (Erie, PA) at www.GoErie.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.