Pa. paging system fails during multi-alarm blaze

A staff member allegedly failed to follow protocol for notifying emergency responders of the outage, which lasted a total of 55 minutes

York Daily Record

YORK, Pa. — The paging system used to dispatch fire departments and emergency medical personnel failed at about 1:15 a.m. Thursday, and a staff member allegedly failed to follow protocol for notifying emergency responders of the outage, according to a statement from York County government.

The county's Department of Emergency Services is taking corrective action, according to the statement provided by county spokesman Carl Lindquist.

"The Department of Emergency Services takes seriously its responsibility to emergency responders and public safety," the county said in the statement provided by Lindquist. "The failure of the system and our personnel is unacceptable and is being comprehensively addressed."

The outage occurred during a three-alarm fire that broke out in a building in the area of West Philadelphia Street and North Belvidere Avenue in York. Lindquist said county records show the paging system properly paged the first two alarms of responders, and county officials believe at least some of the third-alarm responders also received pages.

The outage lasted until about 2:10 a.m. Thursday — about 55 minutes total, according to the county statement.

Chief David Michaels of York City Fire/Rescue Services said some neighboring units that should have arrived didn't because of the outage. He said the outage is a concern for fire officials, and they plan to meet with the county representatives this week.

But he said the outage didn't affect the outcome of the fire, which caused an estimated $200,000 in damage to six buildings. There were no injuries, he said.

"It was a defensive fire to us from the beginning," Michaels said, adding that crews weren't sent into burning buildings. "Our original tactic was to confine that fire to where it was, and then extinguish it."

He said they were able to accomplish that.

Michaels said fire officials can raise the alarm level for several reasons. In this case, they were seeking more manpower, he said.

If it had been a different type of fire, one that took longer to contain, the outage could have added to the total damage, Michaels said.

Michaels said that if responders know there's a paging system outage, they can use other means seek additional help.

David Nichols, fire chief for West Manchester Township, said he has members that would have responded, but didn't.

"We had no clue there was a fire," Nichols said.

He said Thursday wasn't the first time the paging system has failed. He said he's concerned about it both as a fire service member and a taxpayer.

"The system continues to let us down," he said.

The county statement said a failure of the primary paging system would normally trigger an automatic use of a back-up system.

"However, the back-up system is currently down for repairs," the county said in the statement provided by Lindquist.

The Department of Emergency Services has ordered parts needed to complete the repair.

Lindquist said the county had been pursuing parts for the back-up system since it went down about a month ago, but had issues getting a response from its supplier.

Parts were ordered last week, and the county expects to have its back-up paging system repaired within the next seven to 10 days, he said on Sunday.

The county said the department taking is action in response to a staff member who didn't follow protocol in notifying emergency responders. That action could include discipline, retraining or both.

The staff member was not identified in the statement.

The statement from Lindquist said the department has a protocol in place to address outages of the paging system. During an outage, the department is supposed to use automated telephone alerts to notify responders.

"Responders would be advised to man their stations so they can be dispatched over the telephone," the county said in its statement. "They can also be dispatched over the two-way radio system."

An automated telephone notification regarding the outage did not occur, the county said it determined after an investigation.

The county statement said that while the system functions correctly more than 99 percent of the time, the department anticipates infrequent outages. More than 159,783 pages were sent successfully in 2013, the county said.

York County commissioners have approved an estimated $27 million modification and upgrade to the county's emergency radio system. That project is scheduled to be complete in the middle of 2017.

Lindquist said that project is focused on the radio system, not the emergency paging system.

Commissioners said they are pursuing the estimated $27 million project because of new federal rules that will require certain public-safety entities to change the frequencies they use to let police officers, firefighters and other emergency responders communicate wirelessly.

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