Dead Zones Jeopardizing Pa. Responders

June 14, 2013
West Hazleton firefighters and police share the same concerns -- lives are in danger.

June 14--Luzerne County 911 Center's switch to a narrowband frequency for communicating with emergency responders has led to disrupted transmissions and "dead zones" that could jeopardize the safety of emergency responders in the southern half of the county, police and fire personnel from West Hazleton said.

Interim 911 Executive Director Fred Rosencrans, however, said county officials are evaluating solutions to problems that stem from a federal mandate that requires a switch from wideband to narrowband frequency, which likely "tightened up the signal" and led to a reduction in coverage ares.

West Hazleton Borough Council has subsequently directed its solicitor to relay emergency responder concerns in writing to Luzerne County Council.

Borough police Chief Brian Buglio and Fire Chief Dennis Ganc shared communication concerns with West Hazleton council members on Tuesday after talks with John Ankenbrand, technical support/radio supervisor for Luzerne County 911, generated no results.

Ganc said Tuesday that the county switched several months ago to a narrowband frequency, which is used for communicating with police, fire and other emergency responders.

Ever since, police and fire personnel have experienced dead zones in certain parts of the borough and disrupted or "scratchy" transmissions that have impaired communications with county dispatchers, both Buglio and Ganc said.

"Now that we've gone to narrowband we are having more difficulties transmitting," Ganc explained. "It's not only with portable (radios) but with mobiles as well. People are getting a little bit more frustrated. It's not just West Hazleton or Hazleton. It's the Valley, Freeland -- all over. Everyone is having difficulties."

Buglio said he personally relayed concerns to Ankenbrand about a week ago and had been assured that the county would dispatch technicians. The problems have not been resolved, he said.

Police experience problems while using the radios inside cruisers to communicate with county dispatchers, Buglio said.

Ganc, meanwhile, asked what would happen if a firefighter needs help but wouldn't be able to communicate with the rest of the force while inside of a burning building.

"It's a concern," he said. "We need to be able to communicate with one another on the scene or with incoming units."

With a background in law enforcement, Rosencrans said Thursday that he understands the importance of finding a solution -- but cautioned that it would likely take time and could become expensive.

"We are aware of it and we are working on it," Rosencrans said. "It's limited to certain geographic areas. We are looking at solutions. Worst-case scenario, we'd have to put the receive site somewhere in the area. It would require a building ... we'd have to purchase equipment and that could get costly. We're looking at all avenues."

The FCC narrowband mandate became effective in January and required switching to a shared public safety frequency band, Rosencrans said.

Problems, he said, aren't widespread and county officials have not received an overabundance of complaints.

"Honestly, no, I haven't heard many coverage issues," he said. "It's just the typical minor stuff. Most of the stuff we're finding is dated equipment that wasn't compatible."

Problems reported in West Hazleton have been brought to attention of the county tech support supervisor, who has been in contact with borough officials, Rosencrans said.

Ganc said that county crews have offered to check towers and other communication equipment near the borough for problems, but have said there's little they can do for dead spots that have existed prior to the switch to narrowband.

"We've always had some dead spots we've complained about but now that we've gone to narrowband, there's more difficulties," Ganc continued.

Council directed borough solicitor Chris Slusser to write Ankenbrand about the concerns it heard on Tuesday from police and fire personnel.

Council President Mark Yeager publicly shared his frustration for the problems.

"When you're standing outside of a house and you can see the towers flashing in the distance but they can't hear you, it's ridiculous," Yeager said.

Luzerne County Councilman Rick Morelli said late Tuesday that he hasn't been made aware of communication issues until a reporter brought them to his attention.

"They probably have legitimate concerns," Morelli said. "My suggestion would be to come to one of our meetings to address it publicly. It's helpful to us if they can explain it."

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Copyright 2013 - Standard-Speaker, Hazleton, Pa.

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