Worcester County

(Aug. 9, 2019) Having tried various other remedies without result, county government will now attempt to knock out the static that has plagued its new P25 radio system by switching its broadcast to other frequencies.

The Worcester County commissioners gave conceptual approval Tuesday to replace up to eight channel frequencies for the public safety radio system, but not before expressing their frustration with the frequency of the difficulties they have encountered with its operation.

Director of Emergency Services Billy Birch told the commissioners they are dealing with “tropospheric ducting interference” (interference in the low region of the atmosphere) which causes system communications to be non-existent at times. This type of interference is common in coastal areas, he said.

Much of that interference, Birch said, is because of a conflict with Virginia Beach radios, which also use seven of eight frequencies the county possesses. Another factor, according to Birch, has been the recent spike in temperatures.

This disclosure set off waves of frustration, as the system has been beset with difficulties almost from the beginning. The Harris P25 radio system was introduced in 2017, and last fall Federal Engineering (FE) completed an analysis its operation because of complaints about technical problems.

FE gave Emergency Services a list of possible solutions, including re-banding if the issues still plagued the radio system. 

Commissioner Ted Elder referenced one such problem when a house fire broke out in Ocean Pines and emergency responders not communicate with each other, even at close proximity. 

“There was a fire inside the house and they couldn’t communicate right outside,” Elder said. “This has got to be cured. Somebody is going to be seriously injured or killed.” 

Kelly Shanahan, administrative chief officer, clarified that the purpose of this session was to allow the commissioners to “get their ducks in a row” before a meeting with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Sept. 25  to request the re-banding. On Sept. 3, Harris company representatives, FE and county staff will discuss the radio situation for the FCC meeting. 

“I don’t know if you guys have the urgency that should be required for this,” Elder said. “This stuff should’ve been moving a lot faster than September third.” 

Birch reported that emergency services has followed all the recommendations from an assessment FE conducted in 2018. The last step, if the system is still interrupted, is to try a different band. Though not all eight frequencies need to be re-banded, Birch estimated that they will re-band at least four or five. 

Commissioner Joshua Nordstrom asked about the cost associated with re-banding. Birch responded that if they can do it in house, it may be less than $5,000. If they have to obtain bids and work through Harris and FE, it could be “hundreds of thousands.” Birch clarified that he needed conceptual approval from commissioners before he could begin work or reach a more definitive cost estimate. 

Nordstrom moved to approve for further discussion and Commissioner Joe Mitrecic seconded. 

Despite the approval, commissioners were skeptical of an in-house estimate of less than $5,000 or if emergency services had the capability to complete the project on their own. 

“You can’t put a price on one of our emergency responder’s lives,” Mitrecic said. 

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