Ore. fire chief warns bad reception causing communication gaps

After at least six pagers failed to alert firefighters to a three-alarm blaze last month, the chief pushed for upgrades to communications systems


Nicole Bales
The Daily Astorian, Ore.

CANNON BEACH, Ore. — At least six pagers for Cannon Beach firefighters, including the fire chief’s pager, did not activate for a three-alarm fire in Seaside in February because of poor reception.

Now, Marc Reckmann, the fire chief, sets his pager up in a windowsill where he knows he will get reception. Other firefighters do the same in their homes.

Reckmann said pagers don't always go off in the fire district's building, either. When they do, it can be difficult to understand, so they wait for a text from dispatch.

The Seaside dispatch center, which handles emergency calls for agencies in Seaside, Cannon Beach, Gearhart and Hamlet, said the text system was created as a backup for when pagers don't activate.

Reckmann, however, said a text does not always wake firefighters up in the middle of the night when there is a call like a pager does.

"This system is broken," Reckmann said. "This is now a public safety issue and a firefighter safety issue that our pagers are not going off … Somebody’s going to die because our pagers don’t go off."

The fire district, which serves Cannon Beach to Falcon Cove, has historically struggled with reception because of the mountainous terrain between radio repeaters. Certain areas are known to be dead zones.

Reception will not improve until Seaside dispatch sets up new simulcast sites. But there is no timeline for the project.

"I think our system does need to be upgraded, and that's what we're working on," said Mitch Brown, the communication's manager at the Seaside Police Department, which oversees the dispatch center. "I think we need to have a more redundant, robust system and that's what we're working towards."

Brown said they are in the beginning phases of organizing a plan before going to the Seaside City Council for approval to fund the costly upgrades. He said public safety concerns are why they are moving forward with the improvements.

The Cannon Beach fire district has said reception would likely improve under Astoria 911 Dispatch, which serves most of the police and fire agencies in Clatsop County.

Astoria has already made major upgrades as part of a response to a 2015 study by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The study also recommended consolidation between the Astoria and Seaside dispatch centers.

Separate studies in 2008 and 1999 that analyzed 911 dispatch in the county also recommended a consolidated dispatch center. One center could maximize limited staffing and resources and improve the coordination of emergency response and communication.

The study in 2008 was initiated after the mayors of Astoria, Cannon Beach, Warrenton, Seaside and Gearhart sent a letter to the county Board of Commissioners asking them to investigate consolidation. The mayors said the time had come to move to a "single, more effective and cost efficient system."

"Every one of these studies says the exact same thing; that we need to merge dispatch centers. That the current situation is insufficient, does not work, lives are at stake — there’s three studies that say it and yet we’re still doing the same thing," Reckmann said.

Even if the two dispatch centers do not merge, he said, they should at least work off of the same channel to improve communication and response time.

Brown said he doesn't think moving to the same channel would necessarily improve communication. He said it could create other problems.

"I know there’s a way. It’s the willingness to do it … It’s not can we, it’s will we?" Reckmann said.

"We’re extremely short volunteers and when you start having pagers not go off that makes it even more short and also it kills morale … That kills their motivation," he said.

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©2020 The Daily Astorian, Ore.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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