An outmoded and poorly integrated radio system Islandwide has become a critical point of failure for emergency responders, but the path to an upgrade has been strewn with challenges.
A committee that includes the Island’s fire chiefs and the county sheriff has been working for two years to find a common solution, but members say getting agreement from many different political entities on how to manage the system has been elusive.
This week, the Dukes County sheriff’s department, which is responsible for the communications center that receives 911 calls from across the Island, applied for a $3 million state grant to upgrade a patchwork of equipment used by the various towns when ambulances and fire engines are dispatched. But funding the equipment is just one piece of the puzzle.
“We’ve been trying to create a regional entity where one doesn’t exist,” said Tisbury fire chief John Schilling, who chairs the Martha’s Vineyard Public Safety Communications Committee, which began meeting in 2016. “At first blush it seems like this is pretty simple, we should be able to come together on this . . . [But] we’ve been struggling with political challenges. It’s a real challenge to bring all those agencies into alignment and try to put together the governance that is going to be necessary for all the stakeholders to have a say at the table. That has been the ultimate challenge. That’s the thing the committee has been struggling the most with.”
The problem is not with incoming 911 calls, according to Maj. Susan Schofield, who runs the communications center for the sheriff’s office. She said issues arise when dispatchers at the center need to work with different towns to send equipment or personnel to an emergency.
Issues also arise when emergency responders must communicate with each other by radio at an incident scene or communicate with departments from other towns in mutual aid situations. In many cases, the antiquated system of radio towers, transmitters and hard-wired phone lines scattered around the Island proves inadequate at best, dangerous at worst, according to first responders who must rely on the radio system. Sometime they abandon the radio system and use mobile telephones to communicate in an emergency.
“It becomes a safety issue for officers when they’re on serious calls and need assistance, or getting ambulances to people’s houses, when they can’t hear us,” Major Schofield said. “If you have to call an ambulance four or five times, you’ve now wasted two or three minutes. They don’t hear us, or they’re answering and we don’t hear them answering.”
First responders across the Island tell story after story of feeling jeopardized by the faulty system.
Oak Bluffs fire chief John Rose described a chilling incident last October when he responded to a call on New York avenue where he saw flames coming out the window of a home. Told that someone might
be trapped inside, he sent a team of firefighters into the burning building, then learned that the person was safe.
“I could see the guys through the smoke, inside the building,” Chief Rose said. “I couldn’t get them on the radio. I’m standing maybe 50 feet away from him, but I can’t call them on the radio. I can’t tell them to back out of the building. We couldn’t do it.”
Chief Rose said incidents like that have prompted him to move forward on his own with a plan for a new tower and radio equipment.
“I know everybody is working hard to fix this before somebody gets hurt or killed,” he said. “We’ve known about this problem and the severity of it for numerous years. There was a lot of talk of it being fixed through grants and through different things, and that’s just never come to fruition. Some of the processes didn’t go as smoothly as they could. That’s why I’m moving forward on my own. I held off for as long as I could. I can’t wait any more.”
While Chief Rose said his plans for improving his department’s radio systems could become part of a larger regional system, others say individual towns engineering their own systems have contributed others to a patchwork of infrastructure that is failing.
“In the past people’s frustrations have led them to make independent decisions, and those upgrades only serve a specific geographic area,” said Edgartown fire chief Alex Schaeffer. “What we’re trying to do now, and if you can imagine it’s kind of adding to the complexity of things, is make decisions based on the entire Island, so that one municipality isn’t left behind.”
Chief Schaeffer said improvements are needed right away, but it’s important to get it right.
“Anything worthwhile takes time,” he said. “Everybody on the committee is frustrated with the pace. On the flip side of that, we need to make sure we’re not making any decisions that aren’t going to be longstanding, fiscally responsible, and improvements that we’re making to the system are going to continue to be the foundation for future system upgrades.”
Under state law, the county sheriff’s department — which is actually an agency of the state — has responsibility for operating the communications system. Sheriff Robert Ogden, an elected official who took office in 2017, said the department has been stymied by chronic underfunding from the state. He receives $3.1 million annually to operate the house of corrections, the jail, the communications center, and all other functions of the sheriff’s department.
Currently he is administering a $261,000 grant from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety and Security’s 911 department.
The sheriff said the grant can be used for salaries or development of infrastructure, but not both. It currently goes to salaries. The sheriff says the communications center remains severely understaffed, and he has trouble attracting and retaining employees for the stressful duty.
This week the sheriff submitted an application for a competitive $3 million grant over three years, dedicated to the replacement of the Islandwide radio system. Sheriff Ogden said he has had several recent discussions with leaders of the state 911 department to impress upon them the urgency of need.
“Specifically because of the storms we had over the winter, we were able to really press the fact this is a priority emergency situation,” he said. “We could lose our entire system. They agreed that the Island should be defined as an emergency situation, and an obligation to build out, develop the system immediately.”
At annual town meetings this spring, the sheriff asked the six Island towns to fund half of the annual cost of operating the communications center. But the request failed to gain the backing of town leaders, several of whom said he failed to provide detailed information about how the money would be used, despite repeated requests. Voters in all six towns turned down the request.
Sheriff Ogden bristled at criticism expressed in the frustration of Island first responders about the inadequacy of the radio communications system, saying it is not his fault.
“My administration has moved the dial in a year and a half more than anyone on the Island has moved it in a decade,” he said.
Meanwhile, public safety officials on the Island agree it is difficult to underestimate the need for a new emergency radio system.
“We know that the equipment and the system we’re using now has a finite life expectancy to it that needs to be addressed,” said Chief Schilling. “It’s foolish to keep investing in this old technology. We need to take this step and build a system that is going to take us through the next 50 years and have the foundation to evolve.”