County Seeks to Improve Faulty Dispatch Communications

On March 13, Tom Kohley, Coordinator of Carbon County Disaster and Emergency Services and 911 services, met with the Carbon County Commissioners and Sheriff Josh McQuillan to discuss the current state of county wide dispatch services and possible improvements. Afterwards, Kohley spoke primarily about the fire districts and EMS communications.

Kohley said, “First it is necessary to look at the challenges” the county presented for first response communications: providing coverage for over 2,000 square miles, elevations varying from 12,600 to 3300 feet, elevated mountain ridges, deep drainage canyons and the weather. He said, “One hundred percent coverage is not realistic; there are always going to be compromises.”

The communications challenges also included linking smooth communications between all the dispatch areas calling in to 911 as well as mobile radios of the Carbon County Sheriff’s officers, the city police for each jurisdiction and the Montana Highway Patrol. “We have gotten 911 calls from I-90!” he said. “About 3-4 years ago, the county realized it had issues- incomplete coverage and paging issues.” It found "a simulcast solution.” There were three repeater locations where signals would be sent from repeater to repeater from Dispatch. A flaw in one would result in the whole process breaking down. They abandoned one site and set up two more. They made all four sites simulcast which links them altogether. The sites are towers and buildings with equipment. All are remotely manned. There is no local monitoring.

After the setup, communication problems started happening and have been continuing. Last week, there was a situation in Joliet with “paging issues” with the ambulance service. Joliet said it didn’t hear the medical call and responded late. Red Lodge Fire has had problems from time to time with communications as well.

“Communications is a critical part of Emergency Response. No ifs, ands, or buts,” said Kohley but compared to the prior system, “We’ve made huge improvements.”

 

Kohley said, “Before that, we had two sites that would repeat the transmission for each dispatch. That meant a page to Joliet EMS needed two separate towers and transmissions. A page to Red Lodge or Edgar needed two separate towers to transmit the messages. Each tower operated independently. Response had to choose which tower worked best independently.”

Now the four towers are all linked and transmit the communications. For the most part, that is. “It’s a very sophisticated system of microwave links, GPS timing, not one wave but many moving parts and all must move together. A fraction of a second out of synch and if one is out of synch the system begins to deteriorate. That is a problem,” said Kohley.

A synchronicity problem, to be exact. “Between radio sites,” explained Kohley. “They tend to slip a little bit. Sound quality diminishes.” As a result, not all transmissions are uniform. There have been problems with static, calls not getting through and delays, all issues crucial to prevent in a first response situation.

Two immediate steps are being taken. “We set up a schedule of twice weekly for the system to be, in effect, rebooted,” said Kohley. That is the solution the company that provides the service, Industrial Communications, Inc., located in Billings, puts in effect each time they get called. Now the county is making the corrective action a regularly occurring feature. Kohley admits it is a “stopgap measure.”

Secondly, they have identified the problem with a hardware issue involving “timing pieces.” About three months ago, they approached the manufacturer of the pieces, Blue Wave, with the issues of deteriorating synchronicity.

They reported to the county they will look into a systems audit so they can look at this and alternative systems. Approximately $500,000 has been invested by the county in the system. Perhaps another company could offer upgrades or improvements.

It is noteworthy that “99 percent of the firefighters in the county districts are volunteer.” The fire districts must have the resources for funding both manpower as well as equipment. “Have you seen the billboards and Facebook?” asked Kohley, saying they have decreasing numbers of firefighters and are putting the word out. “We are losing people willing to commit the time.” He said Joliet, Bridger and Red Lodge are all volunteer. Roscoe is covered by Absarokee. Fire districts contribute tax dollars to fight fires. “This is how we operate in rural Montana! We rely heavily on mutual aid of surrounding cities and counties; we rely heavily on mutual aid of volunteers. Unfortunately, our volunteer pool is shrinking every year.”“

EMS is primarily volunteer. He said there is no obligation for EMS to respond to medical emergencies. “All the ambulance districts-Joliet (Edgar), Bridger and Red Lodge are all volunteer,” he added. With ongoing efforts to improve communications and the intent to find a company to review the existing system, Kohley feels they are working on a “Plan B.”

Kohley did discuss a recent fire near the Wyoming border and said they had a meeting afterwards. In that case, Bridger responded due to 911 being called from a cell phone. A land line 911 call from the border would have contacted Lovell which might have called Frannie Fire which was closer to the fire. But he explained, there is simply no existing ability to make Wyoming respond to any Montana structure on fire. That would require an agreement.

Even in Montana (possibly unique to the West), he said there are some “non protection zones” in some of its vast, sparsely populated spaces where the people pay no fire district taxes, provide no volunteers and therefore, he said there is “no obligation to respond” to fires.

 

Kohley said they are working on a Mutual Aid Agreement between Carbon County and Big Horn County, Wyoming to come to each other’s assistance for fire response. “The (Montana) Attorney General is reviewing it right now.”