State officials hear first-responder communications concerns

The Island Communication Center located at the Martha's Vineyard Airport is the hub for all emergency radio communication on the Island. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

When the three down-Island fire and EMS departments responded to a simulated fire at the Lampost earlier this month, frequent radio malfunctions marred an otherwise successful drill. Immediately after the exercise, Oak Bluffs Fire Chief John Rose said that radio communication has been an Island-wide problem for some time, and that its performance at the drill was “completely unacceptable.”

Last Friday, Steve Staffier, communication and interoperability manager for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), spoke to a gathering of Island first responders, Coast Guard officers, Dukes County emergency management personnel, and radio technicians, in a conference organized by Dukes County Sheriff Michael McCormack to discuss the longstanding problem.

Sheriff McCormack is responsible for the Island Communications Center, located at the Martha’s Vineyard Airport. The staff of dispatchers provide round-the-clock communications for all Island emergency services and 911.

Speaking to The Times on Monday morning, Mr. Staffier said there were two takeaways from the two-hour conference. “One issue is making upgrades to the mobile radio system,” Mr. Staffier said. “If you decide cops on opposite ends of the Island absolutely need to be able to speak to each other, then you might have to spend some money and change the configuration of the radio system, and add an Island-wide repeater.”

The varying quality of portable radios was also highlighted in the meeting. Mr. Staffier said about half of Massachusetts first responders have digital portable radios, and the other half, which includes all Island departments, still work on analog. He said federal grants are available for upgrading radios, but they must have digital capability, which can cost upwards of $2,000 per radio, as opposed to the $500 radios Edgartown first responders, for instance, currently use.

Commenting specifically about the three-company drill that highlighted radio deficiencies, Mr. Staffier said although he hadn’t read the report closely, he thought human error was probably a factor. “A lot of times we find it wasn’t equipment failure, it was simple operator error,” he said.

“Maybe somebody wasn’t paying attention to the channel, or their attention was drawn away,” he said. “That’s resolved in the fire world by assuring the incident commander, the fire chief, has somebody that can also listen to the radios with him, and they really should do it from a command post or a mobile radio-unit vehicle, because that’ll insure they get true saturation of coverage when the firemen are in the building on portable radios. The utilization of the NIMS (National Incident Management System) and the ICS (Incident Command System) will enable good communication.”

Oak Bluffs Fire Chief John Rose did not attend the meeting because he was on an emergency call. Speaking with The Times on Monday morning, he took umbrage at Mr. Staffier’s assessment. “That’s just a cop-out,” he said. “We are all trained professionally to work on those channels on a daily basis. We have an inadequate radio system for public safety on Martha’s Vineyard, and we need to start a resolution to the problem before somebody ends up getting hurt — that’s the bottom line. I’m not faulting anybody. People need to come to the realization that we need to catch up to the current times and move to a system that is up with technology. We need a feasibility study on the entire system for public safety on the Vineyard. Let the professionals that do this for a living tell us what the best system is.”

Mr. Rose agreed that in a mutual-aid situation, it is ideal to have someone with the incident commander listening to the radios; however, it isn’t always an option. “If it’s possible to have an additional person to listen to the radios, that is ideal,” he said. “But in the first few minutes of an emergency you don’t have that kind of luxury. Longer into the scenario, of course you would want somebody to help manage three different radios.  But the reality is, that doesn’t happen in the initial phase of any scene.”

Communication breakdown
Interoperability, the ability for first responders from different towns and different disciplines to communicate, is a problem on the Island and statewide, Mr. Staffier said, noting that a federal review of a multi-fatality private plane crash at Hanscom Field last June revealed numerous communications breakdowns. In a recent high-profile drill at the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant, state police helicopters had difficulty communicating with officials on the ground. While there is a statewide plan created to address the issue, it’s at least five years and $250 million away. In the meantime, Mr. Staffier said, interoperability between local agencies across the state and on the Vineyard can be improved by reorganizing protocol.

“The Comcenter here is fairly new, and they’ve got good radio equipment in the field,” he said. “It’s almost like some pieces of the puzzle aren’t put in the right spot. The departments just need to program a common-channel template in their radios, so when there’s an event, they can talk to each other seamlessly.”

Currently there are Island-wide dedicated channels for fire, police, EMS, and EMS/hospital (CMED) communication. “Everybody has all the different private channels programmed into their portables,” Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling said. “We’re already accustomed to putting people on fire channels or EMS or CMED. Where we step on each other with fire is multiple incidents with multiple agencies on one scene. The big drill at Oak Bluffs — we had people on four different channels at one scene, with one person trying to manage them.”

West Tisbury Police Chief Dan Rossi said that when he’s en route to an incident, he literally has to change channels on his radio to speak to different towns and different departments. He likened it to texting while driving.

“There should be channels that are used for cross-discipline events, what we call a command nest, so that a police chief and a fire chief can talk without having to change channels, and the people on the ground can talk to each other,” Mr. Staffier said.“In an ideal world, you arrive to the incident, take a laminated card off your visor, and command management has their channel, firefighters have designated ground channels, police have a tactical channel, EMS the same.”

Mr. Staffier said that there doesn’t have to be a channel plan for every possible contingency, just a plan for every town. “It really doesn’t matter what the incident is,” he said. “Plane crash, building collapse; you name it. The same players are coming, same equipment is coming, and same functions are going to happen. You just need a simple channel plan.”

Cross-Island communication

The general consensus among first responders was that communication with central dispatch at the Comcenter is dependable, but direct communication between units from different towns is problematic. In a scenario where a call for a domestic abuse incident goes from the Comcenter to a police officer, that officer might have difficulty getting timely mutual aid if the situation escalates quickly. “Aquinnah has a private channel that we share with Chilmark and West Tisbury,” Aquinnah Police Chief Randhi P. Belain said. “It works fine in Aquinnah, but if you have to call Chilmark for whatever reason, it’s not always reliable.” Mr. Belain said this situation is exacerbated in the summer, when the volume of calls escalates and bandwidth is scarce. The consensus was that grouping up-Island and down-Island towns into two private channels could streamline operations. Hardwiring those two lines to the Comcenter would enable recording of those calls, which is also crucial.

“Some of this is already in place,” Douglas Bardwell, owner of Bardwell Electronics and contractor for the Comcenter, said. “There is one channel that the three up-Island towns share. All that has to happen [for recording] is the individual towns have to pay for the phone line. That’s relatively easy to do if they decide they want it.”

“The portable-to-portable and truck-to-truck communication is not as effective as it should be,” Edgartown deputy fire chief and ambulance coordinator Alex Schaeffer said. “We frequently run mutual aid on the Island. There’s a lot of information that needs to be passed along, and we have some real logistical challenges. We have these long dirt roads, and you can go miles down a dirt road and find you’re in the wrong spot. Communication with other people who are staged in that area is vital.”
Any Islander with a cell phone knows dead spots are common. This problem also vexes first responders. Mr. Schilling said that in a recent car accident in Northern Pines, the Comcenter couldn’t hear him on his 5-watt portable radio, so he had to go back to his truck a fair distance away, to use a 50-watt radio.

The discussion also illuminated interoperability gaps between SSA boats and the Coast Guard with Island first responders. Using current protocol, if there is an emergency on a ferry, the first call goes to the SSA terminal via cell phone, then the agent in charge at the terminal calls the Comcenter, then a third call is made to the appropriate department on-Island. “In the case of an EMS call, we want to know where that person is on the boat,” Mr. Schilling told The Times. “If they’re below decks, it’s a much different technical rescue than removing a head injury from the upper deck. We don’t want to go to the scene and not be 100 percent prepared, so you don’t want to be getting information third- or fourth-hand.”

Under the current system, the Coast Guard can only communicate with first responders on land via the marine hailing channels. There isn’t a direct connection with Island channels. “We don’t plug into the current system well,” Coast Guard Senior Chief Robert J. Riemer said.

Consensus needed

“You have a great foundation here,” Mr. Staffier said. “You’re lucky because you have a one-county structure and one Comcenter. Other parts of the state are a mess.”

Mr. Bardwell said before discussing specific technology upgrades, more discussion is needed to improve inter-Island interoperability. “I think all the chiefs have to get together and figure exactly what you want to do; ‘We want this channel to do this, we want this channel to do this,’ and go from there,” he said. “You guys have got to get together. You don’t need another study.”

“I see this problem across the state,” Mr. Staffier said. “You have to put  together a plan, and you have to relay what your needs are, then we can decide what’s reasonable in the next few years. Then I can go back to a department head with realistic wants and determine the right grant-writing tools.”