Fire board OKs emergency funding of radio

By Meg Olson

Fire district commissioners have voted unanimously to approve an emergency procurement to upgrade communications. Chief Christopher Carleton has the go-ahead to spend up to $50,000 of the district’s capital fund to install equipment on the Whidbey Telecom tower on Johnson  Road, which he expects will dramatically improve communication with dispatch services in the county.

“It’s not just an emergency now, it has been for years,” Carleton said at the February 11 commission meeting, but a combination of dead ends, changing regulations and heightened community concern has increased the urgency.

When someone calls 911 from Point Roberts they are connected to the What-Comm dispatch center operated by the city of Bellingham. If the call is fire or medical it is immediately transfered to the Prospect Fire Dispatch Center, which will send a radio signal to pagers of fire department members so they can respond to the emergency.

In one call in November, some got a page, while others able to respond did not. One emergency medical technician (EMT) responded to the home of Scott and Jody Hackleman where Jody was in medical distress, but could not transport her to the hospital alone. Despite repeated pages, he remained alone on the scene for 20 minutes until Carleton, in Bellingham, contacted another EMT by cell phone and Jody was transported to the hospital. She later died.

“I don’t know if it would have made a difference in saving her life; we’ll never know,” Scott said. “All we know is, the fact it didn’t proceed as it should have could not have had a positive effect.”

Carleton confirmed that assistant chief John Shields was able to respond, but despite three signals being sent by dispatchers, his pager never went off. “It wasn’t a failure of this organization. It was a failure of the way we are paged,” Carleton said.

Dispatchers send signals from a number of antennas in the county but because of distance and terrain, signal reception can be poor in Point Roberts.

Whatcom County undersheriff Jeff Parks said their deputies in Point Roberts also suffer from occasional communications problems.

“Terrain has always been the big issue, countywide,” he said. “Our system is pretty old and we’re always working on it. Federal regulations in 2013 requiring ‘narrowbanding’ to make more channels available for wireless communication degraded the signal in some locations. We did lose signal quality and acquire some dead spots.” Parks said counties like Snohomish and Skagit had voter-approved funding streams to pay for multi-million-dollar overhauls to their emergency communications. “We’ve been looking at this for over 15 years,” he said. “Over that period these projects could have ranged from $20 to $40 million. I don’t know what it would be today.”

The county’s Fire Agency Radio Service (FARS), a subcommittee of the Whatcom County Association of Fire Chiefs, provides central planning and funding to secure needed frequencies and infrastructure for the county’s fire districts, with priority given to new transmission facilities that benefit the most people. The local fire district pays $2,000 a year to FARS.

The FARS mandate, Carleton said, is to do the best for overall coverage, and they have most recently added transmission facilities on Lummi Island and on H Street east of Blaine.

“I’ve been working with FARS and hearing, ‘Wait for H Street, wait for Lummi.’ Now they’re online and we just got done testing. These sites aren’t going to work for us,” Carleton said.

Radio signals reach Point Roberts from Sumas and Galbraith mountains, the highest but most distant antennas, leading to failed pages and static.

“The success rate on our radios is three to one. We have to press the key on the radio three times to get our message across to dispatchers,” Carleton said. “The signal  degrades as it travels over the landscape and through the trees.”

The solution is an antenna array that Whidbey Telecom has agreed to host on their tower for a reduced rent. “That will get us above the trees,” Carleton said. “Whidbey has the ability here to do something really fantastic for the community.” The antennas would both receive and broadcast, making for a much stronger signal for local pagers and radios.

Carleton said the next step is to work with county, state and federal agencies, as well as the Prospect Fire Dispatch Center, to establish radio interties from the new transmission facility.

“It’s a spider web of bureaucracy and there’s no one I can go to and say, ‘We need to get this done;’” he said.

Carleton nevertheless hopes to be able to get the system up and running by the end of March.

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