By Joey DiGuglielmo, Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 4, 2006
A misunderstanding be-tween Pitcairn volunteer firefighters and Monroeville emergency 911 dispatch has led to some hard feelings between the two groups that have been difficult to resolve, according to members of both agencies.
Tensions came to a head last week when, after an accident on Broadway Boulevard, Pitcairn firefighters were unable to contact Monroeville 911. Pitcairn has its emergency calls handled through Monroeville via the Allegheny County dispatch center in Pittsburgh.
A Monroeville official said the problem was caused by a “dead spot” that affects Pit-cairn’s emergency radio system in the vicinity of the accident.
Though dispatching for 102 communities in the county is done through the county Department of Emergency Services, a handful — Monroeville being one — have maintained their own dispatch operations as “ring down” centers.
Emergency calls in those communities — others include Upper St. Clair and Bethel Park — are sent to the county first, but dispatchers there immediately transfer those calls to the communities’ own centers. Doing so takes mere seconds, according to dispatchers.
Because Pitcairn, along with fire service for Wilmerding, continues to piggyback on Monroeville’s system, emergency calls from Pitcairn are routed from the county to Monroeville.
On Sept. 24, after the car accident on Broadway, Pitcairn emergency responders were unable to get their call answered in Monroeville, according to Danny Dick, assistant chief of Pitcairn Volunteer Fire Co. No. 1.
“We called later to find out what had happened and (Monroeville dispatch supervisor) Henry (Hoffman) said our antennas had been taken down,” Dick said.
Hoffman disputed Dick’s claim about the antennas and directed questions to Doug Cole, chief of Monroeville Volunteer Fire Co. No. 4 and assistant chief of Monroeville police.
Cole said there are “dead spots” with Pitcairn’s emergency radio system, which uses a low-band frequency he described as “antiquated.”
The intersection of Britton and Broadway in Pitcairn, where the accident occurred, is known to be such a problem area, according to Hoffman.
Dick claims members of Monroe-ville Volunteer Fire Co. No. 4 have an anti-Pitcairn bias.
Cole laughed when told of that remark, but acknowledged there is some animosity that “goes back a hundred years.”
He said he thinks the root of the problem is in Pitcairn politics. Dick’s brother, Kevin, is a Pitcairn councilman.
Cole also said that because of Monroeville’s tax base, it is able to afford better equipment than most neighboring communities have, a fact that has led to some resentment.
“I’m not saying that to try to sound haughty, but we do kind of have this unavoidable reputation for being the big brother or big daddy.
“We’re happy to help out whenever we can, but after so long, some of that starts to take its toll. I don’t really want to say it’s jealousy, but I guess to some extent, maybe it is.”
Dick’s remarks at a council meeting last week, when he mentioned the trouble reaching the dispatch center, could have caused some residents in the standing-room-only crowd to wonder if they have reliable emergency services.
Dick expressed disgust publicly with Monroeville, but Rollo Vecchio, council president, said Pitcairn wouldn’t be able to maintain EMS service without Monroeville’s help — a notion Cole agrees with.
Dick claimed at the meeting that he was disgusted because public safety was being compromised. Nobody present knew what antennas he was referring to when he said they had been moved.
Hoffman said a telephone line transmitter was removed inadvertently in January, but was put back within 24 hours.
Cole said Monroeville has not moved anything and Bob Full, chief of county emergency services, said his staff hasn’t moved anything, either.
“We’ve heard of no problems from either Monroeville or Pitcairn,” Full said. “We’d be glad to be involved if we knew about it.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the other communities who’ve converted to our center. If it does, it’s interesting that we’re just hearing about it now, a year after the conversions.”
Despite Dick’s anger — he stormed out of the meeting briefly — Vecchio took his comments seriously and checked into the matter, contacting both Hoffman and the county to confirm nothing had been moved.
The existence of multiple emergency radio frequencies is an issue that has vexed the region for years. It came to a head after an April 2004 incident that ended in Monroeville and involved Alvin Starks kidnapping his ex-girlfriend, Andrea Umphrey, from a church in Pittsburgh.
He eluded Pittsburgh police, who couldn’t communicate with state or county police once Starks got onto the Parkway East with Umphrey and their child in tow. He was convicted of killing Umphrey earlier this year.
Monroeville police played a pivotal role in his arrest, but police were responding to each other via cell phones during the incident, which culminated in Monroeville.
U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., met with local officials in 2004 to talk about the problem and said federal money was available to get a uniform system for the region, but that plan never materialized.
Cole said whether it’s Pitcairn’s outdated frequency or the lack of communication policies among Pittsburgh, state, county and Monroeville police, the bottom line is always money.
That’s one reason Monroeville chose to maintain its own 911 center.
“I certainly don’t mean to knock the county, but they predicted back in about 1998 that they’d have a uniform system in five years,” Cole said.
“I’m going to another meeting tomorrow night and I think they’re saying it will be another five years.”
Monroeville’s communications system for its fire departments was installed in 1988 for $650,000. Cole said it remains a viable, solid system.