New Pa. 911 paging system fails during fire

By Carl Lindquist
The York Dispatch

YORK, Pa. — York County's new 911 paging system totally failed to notify a fire department that was called in to help fight a blaze that tore through a Dover Township foster home Wednesday night, fire officials said.

Firefighters were called to 3511 W. Canal Road at about 10:50 p.m. Wednesday, said Dover Township Fire Chief Wayne Latshaw. The fire was under control in about 20 minutes.

Seven people were displaced but no one was injured.

Dover Township firefighters were properly alerted to the fire by the county's new 911 paging system, Latchaw said.

But at least two other departments called in for backup reported problems. The page never went out to firefighters with one department and was sent out late to firefighters with a second fire company, fire officials said.

Problems: The new network totally failed to notify firefighters with Union Fire Co. out of Manchester Borough, said Chief Joe Stevens. Only those who continued to carry pagers on the old network, which is still in use, were notified by page.

That meant only four, instead of the typical six, firefighters were on a truck sent to the fire, Stevens said. And the duty officer left at the station had to use his cell phone to call other firefighters to man the station and ensure it was staffed in case of another emergency.

West Manchester Township firefighters got a page on the new system but it came several minutes late, said department chief Dave Nichols.

A firefighter who lives a mile away reported that he didn't get a page on the new system until he was about halfway to the station, Nichols said.

No difference: Latchaw, a veteran firefighter, said he wasn't aware of the problems with the other two companies. He didn't think the system's failure made a difference fighting the fire Wednesday night.

But he, Nichols and Stevens are concerned about future failures.

"Lives are on the line," Stevens said. "Everybody's safety whether it's a citizen in the county, a firefighter, a police officer or a paramedic working in the field, everyone's safety is at issue with this."

Stevens and Nichols said it's not the first time problems have cropped up with the system.

It is part of an estimated $67.8 million project that also includes a new radio network and new emergency services building in Springettsbury Township.

The new paging system has failed, or delayed alerts, to alert firefighters in the past, both Nichols and Stevens said.

"Sometimes it's spotty where some guys get paged and others didn't," Stevens said. "It could be two guys standing side by side, one pager goes off and the other doesn't."

Investigating: The county is looking into Wednesday's problem, said Eric Bistline, executive director of York County Emergency Services. Internal monitoring showed that the pages went out properly.

But he said further investigation shows a possible problem with a software interface that acts as a "traffic cop" by telling the paging system who should be paged in an emergency.

"It appears as if it hiccuped and it was kind of going in and out," Bistline said. "It would alert one station, then not another."

Bistline noted firefighters could have been notified in more than one way. The county sent out pages on the new network, old network and also put out a broadcast that can be picked up by monitors, he said.

Nichols said county staff has said problems with the interface were to blame for similar problems in the past. The problems are simply not acceptable, he said, noting that a fire can double in size every minute.

"In a true fire emergency or a true medical emergency, seconds are important, let alone minutes," he said.

Not only is Nichols concerned about the paging network, he's also hesitant to transition to the new radio network.

Firefighters are supposed to transition in July.

Copyright 2009 York Newspapers, Inc.
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