County to join backup 911 radio network
Hewitt says current communications setup may be a ‘lemon’
The St. Mary’s commissioners executed a memorandum of understanding Tuesday with a statewide emergency services radio communications system, possibly setting up a complete switch from the current system, which has experienced multiple problems over the last year.
The agreement between the St. Mary’s emergency services department and Maryland First Responders Interoperability Radio Systems Team, or FiRST, will replace the current backup radio system being used by local emergency services personnel, allowing them to communicate with other counties that use the system in the state by the end of next summer.
With up to 140 radio sites on the system, the agreement would also provide enhanced
coverage throughout the county. St. Mary’s would also receive coverage from Charles, Calvert and Dorchester counties, which would ideally keep radio communication going in the event of a radio system malfunction.
The system is estimated to cost the county around $750,000 per radio site, although that’s “a ballpark figure,” Norman J. Farley, director of Statewide Interoperable Communications, said. Four sites would need to be included in the system for ideal coverage, Farley added.
St. Mary’s County would be the first jurisdiction in Southern Maryland to join the FiRST system. Charles and Calvert counties are expected to join the system, Stephen Walker, director of St. Mary’s County Emergency Services Department, previously told The Enterprise.
If installed, the Maryland FiRST system would provide maintenance to the system at no cost to the county.
“You’re here because we’re worried about the reliability of the current system,” Commissioner Mike Hewitt (R) said. “Anytime our 911 goes down, that’s a big deal. Bringing you on … we’re asking you to help out, or piggyback on top,” Hewitt said.
Over the last year, four disruptions have impacted the county’s radio system software, provided by Harris Corp.
St. Mary’s government paid $34 million to Harris for a 15year contract in 2012, including 13 communications towers. The system is still being rolled out and tested during an acceptance period.
“I don’t like buying a lemon, but it looks like we’ve got one in Harris,” Hewitt said.
The Maryland FiRST system has experienced “less than a couple of minutes a year of downtime,” Farley said.
“That’s pretty good,” Hewitt said. “I’m not opposed to moving past [Harris] if we have to.”
The county can elect to become a primary user on the FiRST network, effectively nixing Harris as the county emergency services’ communication provider. The process would take years to roll out, Commissioner O’Connor (R) pointed out.
“I have a real hard time with a $37 million lemon … that we’re still in an acceptance period [for] right now,” Commissioner Tom Jarboe (R) said. “I really want to see the numbers on this.”
The MOU “gives [emergency services] the option to explore moving” to the system, O’Connor said.
Walker noted that the purpose of the MOU is to utilize the state’s backup system, and that further discussion on switching primary software providers could happen in the future.
Electric power study to be conducted
The commissioners also granted the department authorization to request $19,767 in funding for a consultant to provide an electrical power study through the state Emergency Numbers System Board, after two lightning strikes over the last year impacted the emergency services backup center. The weather “resulted in pow- er outages and physical damage to computers and access door swipe pads,” which required repairs and made “the facility either temporarily unavailable” or reduced its capabilities, according to a memo.
The department hasn’t “been totally successful” in remediating those problems with the county’s public works department, Walker said.
The study would not be for repairs, but to identify areas that need repair, Walker said during the hearing.
“This truly is another step in our operation readiness,” he added. If the system is down and “the lightning strikes the [backup center], we don’t want to have that go down, too.”
The commissioners approved a new volunteer dependent care reimbursement initiative that seeks to supplement the cost of dependent care for some eligible county emergency services volunteers during the hours when they are actively volunteering, including during training hours.
The program, funded by the county at $22,000, is designed to help with volunteer recruitment and retention, according to a memo.
Eligible dependents include children younger than 13 whom the volunteer can claim tax exemption. Emergency services volunteers are required to be available for at least 16 hours of volunteer service each month.
Child care providers do not need to be certified in order for the volunteer to be eligible for the reimbursement.
The staffing reimbursement rate covers $20 per child for a minimum of four hours, $30 for children with parents who volunteer between four to eight hours, and $40 per child for volunteers who serve over eight hours of work. During training, eligible volunteers can get $10 for up to two hours, $20 for training that lasts between two and four hours, and $30 when training accounts for more than four hours of volunteer time.
“We’re looking for ways to support your volunteer service providers,” Shawn Davidson, chief of the ambulance and rescue association, said. “Five bucks an hour is honestly a drop in the bucket.”