Pa. county first responders report coverage problems with new radio system
First responders in some areas of Erie County reported weak signals and "spotty" coverage despite the recently-implemented $26.5 million system
Erie Times-News, Pa.
NORTH EAST, Pa. — Lieutenant Mike Kelley of the Crescent Hose Co. navigates the department's red fire truck along a picturesque stretch of Route 5 as North East Fire Chief Dave Meehl watches the red light on the truck's mobile communications radio start to glow.
A voice chimes in over the radio. It's unintelligible.
"All we're doing is picking up garble," Kelley says as the truck coasts east toward the New York state line. "We can't even transmit.
"Almost any time you actually need to talk on the radio, you can't," he says.
Meehl, with a blue mask covering his face, turns from the passenger seat to explain that the red light on the mobile radio is a sign of a weak signal.
"I'm not trying to throw anyone under the bus," he says, "but we're not getting the service we should be getting."
Along the lake shore and across swaths of farmland that run north and east of the borough, first responders often have trouble contacting dispatchers and each other.
They're not alone.
In neighboring Harborcreek Township, for example, Fairfield Hose Co. Chief Jeff Hawryliw also has "spotty" coverage all along the lake shore and other areas of the township.
In the past two months, Fairfield firefighters responded to three water rescues and one structure fire where their portable radios — the handheld units carried by first responders into the field — didn't work "within five feet of each other."
"It's been a landslide of small issues compounding into a larger issue," Hawryliw said.
Erie County's new Next Generation Public Safety Radio System, a $26.5 million project that included new mobile and portable radios that operate on a digital frequency, has resolved communication problems caused by a previous patchwork of portable and mobile radios used by safety service departments throughout the county.
Its new and upgraded communication towers have addressed many of the dead spots that existed in places like low-lying areas and inside buildings.
The project has largely accomplished what it set out to, said Erie County Director of Public Safety John Grappy and Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper.
"The improvement in communication has been phenomenal," added James Rosenbaum, assistant fire chief for the West Ridge Volunteer Fire Department in Millcreek Township and chairman of the Erie County Public Safety Advisory Committee. "We can communicate directly with the neighboring departments that we're dispatched to assist. Prior to this, we were on a mixture of different frequencies. Some we had access to, some we didn't," including fire departments in McKean, Fairview, Girard and the city of Erie.
Officials, however, also acknowledge there remain areas of the county where it's difficult for first responders to communicate with dispatchers and vice versa, and sometimes with each other. Those areas include North East and Edinboro.
"The concerns expressed in the most recent correspondence from our first responders are valid, and county officials share the concerns," Grappy said in a statement Friday. "... We have consistently expressed the sense of urgency to resolve the coverage issues."
Also affecting the Next Generation Public Radio System is that when the county was seeking licenses from the Federal Communications Commission for its 18 communication towers, the Canadian government would not allow the towers to operate at the strength the county had sought.
Grappy and Dahlkemper said they won't close out the project until the contractor, EF Johnson, fixes the issues, which the company is doing at its own expense.
"I've been in numerous meetings myself with EF Johnson and the other partners," Dahlkemper said. "I've been very vocal about the fact that we have to move this along as quickly as we can. And we have to find a solution. I think we're coming up with a fairly decent temporary solution until we get that permanent fix."
EF Johnson officials in February issued a report that cited four areas where the system wasn't performing properly.
In Edinboro, State Route 99 lies between two ridgelines and the university is located on "recessed terrain." Neither receive radio frequencies at full strength from the nearby communications tower.
In Albion, a tower there used a directional transmission antenna that had been pointing north, causing problems along the county's southwestern border. A new antenna with 360-degree coverage has been installed.
In Millcreek Township, first responders located in one area of the simulcast system were connecting with the wrong transmitter, which resulted in poor call quality.
In North East specifically, the contractor identified two problems that largely affect areas to the north and east of the borough. Meehl notes that those areas include the lake shore, including Freeport Beach; North East Community Park, which has beach access,; North East Marina, as well as large tracts of farmland.
The first issue was with the antenna that is located atop Mercyhurst North East buildings at Route 89 and West Division Street. A ridge northeast of the site was "shadowing" the North East area from full radio frequency saturation and "talk back" to the radio system, the EF Johnson report says.
A new antenna has been installed.
"This replacement will allow a higher gain antenna to provide additional talk back that was not previously needed," EF Johnson officials noted in their February report.
Grappy noted that EF Johnson placed the original antenna at Mercyhurst North East to resolve coverage issues.
The second problem identified by EF Johnson existed at the state-owned communication tower at the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation salt dome on Route 89, south of Interstate 90. Erie County received permission to place its own antenna on the tower as part of the project. However, that antenna had been "hindered by direct interference" from a transmission antenna the state placed on the tower after the county installed its antenna. The county has since moved its antenna on the tower to eliminate the interference.
But a long-term solution would require the installation of an antenna on an existing tower across the state line in neighboring Ripley, New York. Erie County and EF Johnson officials have been in discussions with federal officials in New York state over a memorandum of understanding that would allow Erie County to locate equipment in Ripley.
The county, through EF Johnson, has applied for two FCC licenses — one for the proposed Ripley tower and another in Edinboro that would improve communications on the Edinboro University campus. An antenna would be placed either atop the Edinboro University library or on the borough's water tower.
Because this would require approval from the Federal Communication Commission, EF Johnson cannot estimate how long the project would take to complete.
The county and its emergency forces have been discussing the need for a new radio system for more than three decades, ever since the Albion tornado in 1985.
Work on the Next Generation Public Radio System began five years ago.
Law enforcement transitioned to the new system in late September, with fire and EMS making the transition in early October.
Before the transition, or "cutover," EF Johnson with the help of first responders conducted field testing at 2,400 different points across the county. The test was 98% successful, so the county and contractor opted to move ahead with the transition, Grappy said.
The new radio system is supposed to provide at least "95% coverage 95% of the time."
Problems were discovered both before and after the transition, Grappy said.
Even with the coverage gaps, Grappy notes the system is still better than its predecessor. Before, first responders could talk on their radios, but they had no way to know if dispatchers or others could hear them. New radios have what's called a "proceed tone" to indicate that someone's listening on the other end.
The system also has an on-site function that allows first responders to talk to one another at the scene of an emergency (but not dispatchers) if they are out of range of the larger radio system itself.
To remedy the problems in North East, the county plans to install a temporary tower at the North East Marina.
While Meehl said he understands that a permanent solution won't happen overnight, he's frustrated by how long it's taken the county and EF Johnson to deploy the temporary tower.
Meehl said Erie County and the contractor have been too slow to respond to the concerns expressed by the borough, township and the two companies he oversees — the Crescent Hose Co. and Full Hose Co.
Meehl said he was told six months ago that the county planned to set up a temporary tower.
"And then all of a sudden March hit and the virus and everything else hit and that seemed to be the blame for everything," he said, referring to the COVID-19 pandemic. "You know, 'everything's delayed because of the virus, people can't get together to do it, parts are back-ordered.' This was going on for weeks and months. The companies decided at one meeting that we needed to get it out there, take (concerns) to the next level."
Dahlkemper said COVID-19 has indeed caused several delays to the work on the temporary tower and other fixes.
"That's a part of this," Dahlkemper said. "Anything that you've tried to do over the last five or six months has taken longer. Whether you're talking about equipment, whether you're talking about the actual people getting the work done, all of that. So, yes, some of this has been delayed. I'm not using COVID as an excuse, but it's just the reality that we're all living with."
Erie County said on Friday that the equipment has been ordered and received. Mobilcom, a vendor for the equipment, is installing the temporary, portable tower at the Erie County Department of Public Safety. It will be in place at the North East Marina no later than the end of August.
Hawryliw believes better field testing would have benefited the system before its launch. Grappy said more testing will be done soon.
Hawryliw cites radio programming issues and insufficient coverage inside of buildings as being among his concerns with the system.
Both Hawryliw and Meehl said they believe the system can work as intended if both temporary and long-term repairs are made.
"I understand to a certain extent with COVID," Hawryliw said. "I understand where maybe their hands are tied. But this is public safety. Our jobs never stop, 24/7/365.
"The county is taking steps to mitigate this, but it's too slow," he continued. "Months and months and months. Almost a year has passed. It should have never gotten to this point."
©2020 the Erie Times-News (Erie, Pa.)