County to join backup 911 ra­dio net­work

He­witt says cur­rent com­mu­ni­ca­tions setup may be a ‘lemon’

The Enterprise - - Front Page - By TAY­LOR DEVILLE tdev­ille@somd­news.com

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.”

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