SNOW HILL – Problems continue to plague the county’s $5 million public safety radio system.
The Worcester County Commissioners this week gave staff conceptual approval to move forward with re-banding frequencies for the radio system. New frequencies are expected to address interference problems the radios have experienced.
“We need to change these channels,” said Billy Birch, the county’s director of emergency services.
According to Birch, four or five of the county’s radio frequencies should be replaced to eliminate the interference issues experienced by first responders.
“If you look at a straight line from Worcester County to our interference, the biggest source of our interference is 96 miles and that interference source is Virginia Beach,” he said. “They do share seven of the eight current frequencies that we possess today. That’s why we’re asking for your approval to do this re-banding.”
Commissioner Ted Elder said the radio system had been the source of countless problems since it was purchased in 2015.
“It seems like every time we spend more money we have more problems,” he said.
Elder added that emergency responders at an accident in Whaleyville and at a fire in Ocean Pines recently had struggled with interference during their communications.
“This has got to be cured,” he said. “Somebody’s going to get seriously injured or killed.”
Commissioner Chip Bertino questioned why the commissioners hadn’t received the report Birch was citing during his presentation.
“This is ridiculous that we’re going to be discussing something we haven’t even had on a topic that, as we all know, has been a major concern to all of us,” he said.
Assistant Chief Administrative Officer Kelly Shannahan said there was a meeting scheduled in early September during which the commissioners could share their concerns with Harris Corporation, the company that the radios were purchased from, as well as with Federal Engineering, the county’s consultant on the issue.
“The purpose of bringing this before you today was this re-banding initiative needs to get started immediately,” he said.
When Elder suggested the radio issues deserved some urgency, Birch said that Federal Engineering had brought up re-banding last year but had advised the county to wait a year to be sure it was truly needed.
“We’ve done exactly what they said,” Birch said. “That’s why I’m coming before you today to say there’s no other possibilities that I am fully aware of, after doing a lot of research on it. We need to do this.”
He said that one of the county’s existing channels experienced 34,000 interference hits during a particular time period in which another channel, one of those the county wants to take on, experienced just 43 interference hits.
“Every public safety organization, whether it’s fire, police, law enforcement, whoever, are fighting for a finite amount of space,” he said. “We’re trying to find clear frequency channels.”
Birch said the cost could be less than $5,000 if staff were able to do it in house. He said it could cost hundreds of thousands if an outside company had to be hired.
“We’re not going to go out and do it without asking you,” he said. “The accusation being made is we’re doing things with this system. We’re not doing it. What interference you’re seeing is happening because of the biome, the earth that we live in, and the bouncing of the tropospheric ducting.”
Commissioner Joe Mitrecic said that the re-banding should have already been done.
“I think we continue to chase this problem,” he said. “Instead of being proactive, we’re reactive and that’s why we keep getting ourselves in this hole that we’re in today… I think we need to move forward with it. I’m not happy with moving forward with it, I’m not happy with the whole situation, but I haven’t been happy since the day we put these radios in use.”
Birch said he was monitoring the ongoing interference issues and would keep the commissioners informed.
“If we get complaints on it the last thing I or my staff is going to do is sit on it because we’ve got to fix it,” he said. “These men and women are the ones we’re dispatching and sending places.”