During an average day, the Dukes County Regional Emergency Communications Center receives about 115 calls. During the nor’easters on March 2 and March 13, the communications center received 373 and 422 calls respectively, over a 24-hour period.
According to Dukes County Sheriff Robert Ogden, there were breakdowns during both storms due to equipment failure, and it was only the quick thinking of communications staff that kept the network functioning when it was needed most.
“We didn’t lose the 911 calls, we lost the dispatch, we couldn’t dispatch police and fire to sites, because towns lost power to their towers,” Ogden said. “They had no back up.”
There are six antennas, or “listening sites,” on the Island that connect to the communications center. They sit atop Peaked Hill, the Old Whaling Church, the water towers in Edgartown, Oak Bluffs, and Tisbury, and the West Tisbury fire tower. Aging copper wire carries the signal from the listening sites to the communications center.
Power to antennas went down in both storms, and backup generators also failed.
“This keeps me up at night,” Sheriff’s Deputy and communications technician Anthony Gould told The Times. “I’m very worried about this half of 911. There really is a high potential for the loss of life and property if the system goes down, and these two storms are nothing compared to what could happen. Hurricane season is just around the corner.”
Backups break down
While the first nor’easter of March was lashing the Vineyard on March 2, Deputy Gould discovered a communication breakdown between Oak Bluffs and Tisbury first responders and the communications center, while he was on a call with the Edgartown Fire Department, where he’s a volunteer EMT.
“I assumed it was a problem at the Oak Bluffs [antenna], which also affects Tisbury” he said. “Oak Bluffs hosts three repeaters for police fire and EMS for those towns.”
According to the incident report, Gould contacted police in Tisbury and Oak Bluffs and instructed them how to switch their radios from the Oak Bluffs repeater to directly reach the communications center on a backup channel. But for 10 minutes, both departments were completely out of communication with the center. “When the repeaters lose power, police and fire/EMS are unable to hear the communications center and we’re unable to hear them,” Gould said.
Then, Gould said, he had difficulty reaching the malfunctioning generator.
First, he needed someone from the Oak Bluffs Water District to unlock the fence so he could access the generator shed. Then he needed the proper passcode to the shed from Bardwell Electronics, who own and service the Oak Bluffs and Tisbury towers. Gould said he was unable to reach anyone from Bardwell Electronics and eventually had to pick the lock.
Doug Bardwell, co-owner of Bardwell Electronics, told The Times Gould had mistakenly called his brother Tom, who was on vacation. “We have a 24-hour answering service based on the Cape, and their lines were probably down,” he said. “But they also have my cell phone number. For the past 30 years, [Major] Schofield has always been able to reach me.”
In an email to The Times on Tuesday, Gould disputed Bardwell’s account. “The sheriff attempted to contact both Tom and Doug on their personal cell phones with no answer. We received a call back from Tom Bardwell at 11:20 on March 6, 2018, on 508-693-1212 to follow up on messages left for him on March 2.”
Bardwell said his company is on call 24/7/365, in part because of its contract with the Steamship Authority, and that his company has to great lengths to respond to emergencies, including in 2011, when lightning took out the communications center and he was visiting his wife in the hospital off-Island.
“At 4:30 am the next morning I got up with my son and drove to Woods Hole to get on the first boat. At the end of the day Tom and myself were able to about half of the comm center up and running. Two days later the comm center was completely repaired. My point is we have always been there when needed. The current administration has chosen a different path and that’s fine just don’t throw us under the bus because you don’t follow a protocol that’s been able to find us for 35 years.”
Gould said that maintenance has long been substandard at the Oak Bluffs site. “There’s been water leaks, and there’s no working HVAC — this equipment is sensitive to temperature change,” he said.
Bardwell again disagreed.
“We maintain Tisbury and Oak Bluffs, both have air conditioning and heat,” he said. “There was a leak issue at Oak Bluffs, but that was fixed five, six months ago.”
Power was restored at the Oak Bluffs tower in the March 2 storm almost three hours after it had gone down. Gould’s report stated the generator was not repaired by the March 13 storm, which would pack a much harder punch.
Long distance help line
The communications center itself hung by a thread during the March 13 blizzard, relying completely on a 20-year-old generator that required constant maintenance.
“We lost power for a day and a half. If we lost that generator, most police, fire/EMS communications, and 911 communications would have been down,” Ogden said. “I kept going outside and cleaning it off because I was concerned it was going to fail. I heard sounds coming out of it I’d never heard before.”
The heavy snow and hurricane force winds during the storm knocked out power to the Oak Bluffs and Edgartown water tower sites and the West Tisbury site at about 8:30 am. Ogden said it again took Gould’s improvisational and technical skills to come up with workarounds. But this time he did it from Pennsylvania, where he was getting certified to climb telecommunications towers. Gould used the same backup channel workaround as he did in the March 2 storm, but again, there was a brief period where there was no communication between first responders in those three towns and the communications center. “We were lucky the backup channel worked both times, but even when it works, it doesn’t cover as well as a functioning network,” he said. “And I’m not confident it’s going to work every time.”
From hundreds of miles away, Gould directed Deputy Chris West through the steps to get the towers operational.
“Chris went from being a telecommunicator to driving through the storm while communicating with Tony in Pennsylvania to make sure the system didn’t fail,” Ogden said.
At the Edgartown water tower site, West discovered that the backup battery — a car battery — was dead.
“We were rapidly losing sites in that area,” Gould said. “We knew Oak Bluffs was down because the generator wasn’t fixed from the first storm. If we lost the Edgartown Whaling Church, we’d have no radio coverage whatsoever for Oak Bluffs and Edgartown.”
Fortunately, Gould had improvised a fix on the Whaling Church tower in February, after finding equipment exposed to the elements. “There’s a plastic bag over it right now, with some duct tape, it’s kind of embarrassing,” he said.
“The Edgartown towers are in pretty bad shape,” Bardwell said. “A car battery can work as a backup, but only for a very short time. We’ve brought this up before. Edgartown is the richest town on the Island but they don’t want to spend money on emergency communication.”
Deputy West experienced equipment failure of a different kind that night — the brakes on the sheriff’s department SUV failed. Deputy Nathan Vieira had to give him a ride to Tisbury to get his personal car, to finish his rounds.
Although up-Island is often a black hole when it comes to communications signals, the Peaked Hill tower, which is maintained by General Dynamics under the aegis of the U.S. Coast Guard, never lost power, giving up-Island towns better emergency coverage than down-Island towns.
“West Tisbury was down but Peaked Hill covered West Tisbury for the most part,” Gould said. “For Oak Bluffs and the Edgartown all we had was the Whaling Church. We were looking at using extension cords and little Honda generators, and power strips at one point. Then you had to figure where to put the generator so it’s out of the wind, it was kind of ridiculous.”
Gould estimated the towers in Oak Bluffs, Edgartown and West Tisbury were out for about 12 hours during the second storm.
“If someone gets hurt or killed on Martha’s Vineyard because of this, I’ll take responsibility but I’m going to bring a lot of people to bear,” Ogden said. “We have to improve this system.”