Communication breakdown: 911 is the emergency

With state official listening, sheriff and Island public safety officials sound the alarm on outdated system.

Curt Wood, state undersecretary for public safety, speaks to Island public safety officials about the need for improved communications infrastructure on Martha's Vineyard, and how the state could help. — George Brennan

Emergency calls between the county sheriff’s Regional Communications Center and the Island’s first responders are hanging on by a copper wire, creating what officials say is a dangerous situation.

At a meeting Tuesday with Curt Wood, undersecretary of forensic science and technology with the state’s Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, Dukes County Sheriff Robert Ogden and a room full of two dozen police, fire, and EMS officials pleaded for state help in replacing the outdated communications being used by Island departments.

In a nutshell, in the age of digital communications, the Island still depends on analog devices that use landlines and repeater towers — some of them on leased property where there’s no access for maintenance, Edgartown Deputy Fire Chief Alex Schaeffer said. Verizon no longer has personnel who can fix the copper lines, and has to hire independent contractors who are sometimes unreliable, Sheriff Ogden said.

The issue of poor communications is nothing new, but is a worsening problem, with solutions being studied by a committee of two police, two fire, one EMS, and two sheriff’s department representatives. Some radios don’t work outside of local towns because of the patchwork fixes that have been done out of “fiscal necessity,” Deputy Chief Schaeffer said. That can make it difficult for departments to communicate on mutual aid calls.

“We don’t have redundancy. We don’t have backup. That’s terrifying,” said Deputy Chief Schaeffer, who was recently appointed Edgartown fire chief.

The existing communications system is one that’s rated for businesses like taxi companies, not public safety, he said.

“It’s like towing a boat with a Prius instead of a pickup truck,” said Rob Verdone, who has consulted with Sheriff Ogden on the Island’s communications needs.

The good news is, Mr. Wood heard them loud and clear during the nearly two-hour session at the Tisbury Emergency Services Building. The not so good news is that a more permanent solution is likely three to four years away, and will require some investment by Island towns.

“At the end of the day, there’s no more important system than 911 and radios,” Mr. Wood said. It’s not just about having people call in to 911, but being able to dispatch the appropriate emergency personnel and having them communicate effectively at the scene of an emergency, he said.

The immediate option for the Vineyard, he said, is to seek a grant to rebuild or replace the Dukes County radio system.

Sheriff Ogden estimated a rebuilt system would cost about $3 million. Replacing the system could cost upwards of $6 million to $8 million, he said.

The Island’s latest discussion of its communications woes comes just days after Mr. Wood said he met with Gov. Charlie Baker and other key administration officials to make the case that there are pressing needs across the commonwealth, including Dukes County. “There’s an expectation,” Mr. Wood said. “What are the communities contributing?”

Right now, the Island towns pay nothing for the communications center, Sheriff Ogden said. “The local municipalities have gotten a free ride since 2010,” he said.

There were no selectmen or town administrators at Tuesday’s meeting (there were finance committee members from West Tisbury), despite some town leaders being invited, Tisbury Fire Chief John Schilling, who chairs the committee, said. “It is disappointing none of them were here,” Chief Schilling said.

Mr. Wood said he’d be willing to come back to answer questions for selectmen, though he joked that he would pass on a return trip across Vineyard Sound aboard the Barnstable County Sheriff’s emergency boat.

The state is looking at ways to fund communications needs in other areas of the state, like the Berkshires, where aging systems are also putting the public at risk, Mr. Wood said.

“I would suggest you start now, get something on paper well before the May 1 deadline,” he said. “I didn’t realize it was this serious until I had some detailed conversation. I think the point about being stuck out on an island, that’s serious … so, we’ve got to address it.”

While Sheriff Ogden is the Dukes County sheriff, his budget comes from the state government. He explained that money he gets for his budget is used for the communications center, essentially taking money away from the jail.

Mr. Wood said there are four counties that have communications centers run by sheriff’s departments, including Dukes and Barnstable on the Islands and Cape. He is pushing for funding for those centers to come from the 911 Trust Fund, which comes from surcharges on telephones.

The communications center, located at Martha’s Vineyard Airport, provides services for all of the Island’s 38 emergency public safety agencies, as well as town departments like DPWs and harbormasters. The center has less than a dozen employees, eight of them dispatchers, Sheriff Ogden said. The sheriff’s department struggles to keep employees because the pay is low — about what a waitress or gas attendant makes — with a tremendous amount of stress, he said.

The communications system, which makes it difficult for dispatchers to hear communications in the field, doesn’t help that stress level, Sheriff Ogden said.

“We’re losing people,” he said. “We have people two or three years, they’re our seasoned veterans.”