Pennsylvania County’s New 911 Paging System Fails During Blaze
York Daily Record, Pa.
Representatives from two York County fire companies said they were unaware of the initial call just before 11 p.m. because the county’s new emergency paging system did not work.
Firefighters had to find out through the old paging system, by listening to scanner traffic or by being contacted about the emergency by phone, which delayed their response to the call in the 3500 block of West Canal Road, they said.
Eric Bistline, the executive director of York County Emergency Services, said he is baffled at what happened.
A preliminary investigation at the 911 center showed a text page went out to fire companies Wednesday night, but Bistline later learned from firefighters Thursday morning that they never got the message.
"It is very puzzling," Bistline said.
Communication and radio technicians are checking operations at the 911 center and several transmission sites designed to send the page, he said.
"Nothing is infallible. I wish I could say it was," Bistline said. "This stuff is wireless technology. It is not 100 percent. Things will go wrong, but they will go wrong a lot less with the new system."
As he inspected the damage today, Dover Township Fire Chief Wayne Latchaw — the incident commander — said he did not believe the communication snafu hampered firefighting efforts. He said he believed had enough manpower and equipment to fight the fire, which was knocked down in 20 minutes.
Dover Township was one of the few companies that received a text page sent with the new radio system and was out of the station within a minute, Latchaw said. About 15 minutes into the fire, he said, he began to hear some firefighters complaining about problems with the pagers.
While concerned, Latchaw said he kept his focus on firefighting efforts. He said firefighters were fortunate this time because the malfunction didn’t make a difference with the fire. But he said he is concerned about the next time, when a few minutes may mean the difference between life and death.
"That’s a big concern," he said.
Increasingly, the county has been under pressure by police, fire and other emergency service providers to fix the problems with the new, $36 million 911 radio system.
Workers from system manufacturer M/A-COM and parent company Tyco Electronics have been working out glitches, Bistline said. The known glitches include lost or garbled transmissions.
Some of the county fire departments are using the old, analog system, while others such as Dover
Township rely completely on the new text paging system.
County Commissioner Doug Hoke said the public has the right to demand accountability.
"If there was a breakdown of the system and it had an effect on emergency response times, I certainly want to know what happened and what is being done to correct this," Hoke said. "People rely on this system. The county has a responsibility to make sure it is working properly."
West Manchester Township Fire Chief David Nichols said there was a three-minute delay in notifying his department’s firefighters of the call. He said the new text paging system did not go off at all, and he had to rely on his old pager.
"This wasn’t the first time we had a problem with an alert," Nichols said.
Joe Stevens, fire chief at the Union Fire Co. in Manchester, said he was "angry" and "disgusted" that the new pagers did not go off. He said firefighters were unaware they were needed to help at the call in Dover Township until someone overheard some scanner traffic.
The on-duty supervisor had to call firefighters on their cell phones to make sure there was enough manpower to send a crew, Stevens said. A crew with just four firefighters went out the door when, Stevens said, he would have been more comfortable with six.
Stevens said he will tell his firefighters to carry both pagers from the old and new alert system until the problems can be worked out. He said he is also considering activating the old 1940s siren atop the fire hall to send an air-raid-like blast to get firefighters to respond.
"I have to rely on 1940s technology and my big old fire siren to get my guys out of bed. Something is wrong there," Stevens said.
"The whole system is hanging by a threat because the new pagers didn’t work. This is suppose to be the best thing since sliced bread. We keep hearing that. But it is not working to its full potential."
Carol Cousins and her six children have been displaced and are staying with relatives after the fire at their home in Dover Township.
The fire caused an estimated $200,000 in damage, Dover Township Fire Chief Wayne Latchaw said.
The state police fire marshal has been asked to help establish a cause, Latchaw said, but the fire is not believed to be suspicious.
McClatchy-Tribune News Service