Council oversight on public safety
August 9, 2019
Picture for a moment the radios that first responders carry. These radios function by relaying signals through a network of dedicated towers placed around the County.
Firefighters, rescue and police officers need a new radio network. The current one is failing. Failing means that there are moments when the radio network becomes unreliable.
Consider that firefighters in a burning structure or police officers calling for backup could get a busy signal instead of getting through. It has been happening. For hours one weekend this May, 75% of the channels went down.
A new system is nearly ready. County departments have been working to build the new 22 tower system for years. The “go live” plan for the new network is Fall of 2020.
Recently, however, there has been confusion as the County Executive moved to cancel two critical tower locations for the network, putting completion of the project into jeopardy.
Some residents nearby did not want a radio tower where it had been planned, inside of the cloverleaf intersection of Georgia Avenue and the ICC. They spoke out. A handful of residents also protested a proposed tower near the Potomac River.
In response, the County Executive directed his staff to find alternatives.
Councilmembers became alarmed as we heard from firefighters and other emergency management personnel that without those two final towers, the network would not work as planned, particularly in Olney, Leisure World and the Potomac River basin.
While searching for alternatives may sound reasonable, as it turns out, you can’t remove 1 of the 22 towers without:
- Deploying a network with coverage weak spots where towers are missing
- Reconfiguring the entire network, which is designed as an interdependent whole, possibly requiring a delay from the Fall 2020 go-live, meaning the County continues relying on the failing system for longer
- Searching for alternative locations, which has no clear timeline for success
- Building alternative towers that could cost taxpayers millions more than planned
None of these consequences are acceptable. That is why the Council voted unanimously to approve a capital budget amendment requiring the executive branch to move forward with the network as planned. Watch a video of my remarks on the budget amendment.
While the Council very much regrets the dis-satisfaction these two towers have caused for some, there are tens of thousands of residents in the Olney area and a million of us around the County who are counting on our first responders to be able to do their job, every minute of every day.
If an alternative location were available that would not delay the full network, cause the area to have lesser coverage in the interim, and cost the County millions of dollars, we could do that. But there isn’t.
In response to Council questions about the final remaining tower, Bretton Woods, the County Executive’s representative said, “we have run out of time because the process to research, finalize location, permit, build and test this alternative site is predicted to take more than 18 months. The Executive directed staff to condense the process as much as possible, but at this late date, the alternative site cannot be guaranteed to be ready for the December 2020 deadline.”
And that is why we need to move forward without delay on this critical public safety initiative. With our unanimous vote, the Council is insisting on it.