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by Judith Hruz
Members of the Montgomery County Council’s Public Safety Committee made it clear they want the county’s new communication system up and running – and running well – sooner rather than later, but State Sen. Benjamin Kramer made it clearer that any delays in implementing the new system should not be blamed on residents of the Olney community.
Residents of Olney were caught off guard last summer when they learned that a communications tower, then planned at nearly 350-feet tall, would be erected on Georgia Avenue (Route 97) at the Intercounty Connector (Route 200).
The Public Safety Committee, chaired by Councilman Sidney Katz (D-Dist. 3), met June 18 to air concerns that County Executive Marc Elrich (D) took that site – and another near Potomac/Darnestown – off the table and discuss how the system could be implemented in a timely manner with those changes.
In April, Elrich and State Highway Administrator Greg Slater agreed that the location as proposed would be removed from consideration and a search would begin for alternative locations.
Some officials have become especially concerned after service was interrupted on Mother’s Day weekend and since then.
“Obviously, this is a huge concern,” Katz said.
Gov. Larry Hogan added his voice to the ongoing debate via social media the next day, chiding “some county officials” for taking the two tower locations off the table.
In posts on Twitter, he wrote, “As governor, I am committed to making sure that our law enforcement, firefighters, and first responders are equipped with the technology they need to do their jobs. Reliable communications can mean the difference between life and death.”
Hogan (R) also wrote: “Inexplicably, some Montgomery County officials are considering standing in the way of a radio tower critical to our first responders. This comes after a 14-hour outage last month & firefighters raising concerns that the current system is ‘at grave risk of catastrophic failure.’”
The next day, Elrich issued a statement that began with his commitment “to do everything possible to ensure that the people of Montgomery County are safe.”
His statement adds that looking for two alternate sites to replace those originally planned to be used does not impact the public safety system.
His statement continues:
“Every action that I have taken to improve the public safety communication system over the last few months has been done with a sense of urgency and concern for public safety. I inherited a county public safety communications system that is over 20 years old and long overdue for an upgrade. My administration has been working to implement a new system that was planned by the previous administration and scheduled to be fully operational by December 2020.
“The consideration of alternate sites for two of the planned towers in no way jeopardizes the public safety system today. In fact, my administration has taken significant steps to strengthen the existing system and improve its stability so that people are safe. We have improved hardware and will be adding redundant hardware and upgraded software to enhance the current system. These enhancements were not planned prior to my taking office. We continue to vigorously test contingency plans for minor and major scenarios. These improvements, as well as the extra training and preparation that our public safety personnel instituted, have better prepared us to address emergency situations. As a result of these efforts, the county is in a better place. However, we will continue to engage the community and do what is needed to ensure that the people of this county are safe from now until the new system is completed in 2020.
“To be clear, I will never compromise the safety of the people of Montgomery County.”
Dale Tibbitts, special assistant to Elrich, said several weeks ago that even though officials fixed the recent problems with the existing system making it “better than before,” it is important to get a new system.
He said the so-called “Site 7,” which is along the Intercounty Connector (ICC), just east of Georgia Avenue near a stormwater management pond, is the “most promising” alternative Olney site.
“The site satisfies the state’s needs and our needs, and has minimal impact to residents,” he said.
However, officials learned that Willow Grove, a historic property, is about 1,200 feet northwest of the site. Tibbitts said they do not yet know if the proximity to a historic site is an impediment.
“We are still holding out great hope for that site,” he said. “The community brought that site to us. Community engagement is so important and that is what we didn’t have before.”
When Olney residents learned of the proposed tower, they reached out to the county asking for information, a meeting and a chance to discuss the tower, which the county had been planning since 2006.
Officials from the Montgomery County Department of Technology Services, Maryland Department of Information Technology and Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration finally held a meeting in March, drawing nearly 400 residents who made it clear they wanted a say in the matter, and had they been included in the site selection process from the beginning, would have helped the county and state find an appropriate site, even if the tower were placed in their community.
Kramer (D-Dist. 19) stood up for the community at that March meeting, saying the site-selection study “did not involve the people sitting in this room tonight.”
He called the selection process “an embarrassment” and “disgraceful,” and said, “You are doing a terrible disservice to all the residents of the communities that will be impacted by this proposed structure.”
Kramer spoke before the council’s Public Safety Committee again June 18, particularly addressing Councilman Hans Riemer (D-At large), who called Elrich’s decision to pull the sites “totally unacceptable” and “political.”
He said Elrich “needs to reverse course.”
But Kramer said his testimony before the committee was designed to bring “thoughtful logic” to the issue, especially after hearing “the pontification” of Riemer.
He said the Olney community’s desire to remove the tower from Georgia Avenue and the Intercounty Connector was not an issue of NIMBY-ism, but of wanting to be included in the process and have a say in a tower he said could have “a direct impact to their health and well-being.”
Kramer said the community is equally concerned about the “welfare and best interest” of the entire county and that there is no reason the county cannot move forward with the best interest of all county residents and Olney residents’ concerns in mind.
The senator called the comments that it was a not-in-my-backyard attitude part of the “Chicken Little misinformation.”
He added that Elrich had the “courage and fortitude” to correct a situation that exemplifies “government function at its worst.”
Riemer, who is not a member of the Public Safety Committee but was sitting in on the committee meeting “as a visitor,” according to Katz, said his comments were based on comments he is receiving from first responders and others.
Toward the end of the June 18 committee meeting, Riemer again chastised the decision to pull the Georgia Avenue/ICC site off the table.
“I think we’ve got to have more discussion about the decision that was made to give up the tower location at the ICC,” he said. “I don’t think that is something we should agree with. I think we ought to express our insistence that the site remain on the table and get the state to get back to the table with us on that site.”
The current communications system, which uses 11 towers, is aging at best and the vendor does not support the system any longer.
The new system, purchased from Motorola will utilize 22 towers, monopoles or dishes to facilitate emergency communications for the county’s 911 communications center, police, firefighters, sheriff’s office and corrections. The state will also use the system.
It is expected to go online in December 2020.
The county has asked Motorola if it can predict how the new system will work 20 of the 22 sites on board and the remaining two being added afterwards.
That opinion was expected after The Greater Olney News press time.
Katz, who along with Riemer sent a letter to Elrich asking him to reverse his decision, said at the committee meeting that they had not received a response from the county executive.
Katz asked for weekly updates on the communications system and said that another committee meeting should be scheduled after more information is obtained.
“We’re all concerned about safety and want this solved as quickly as possible in the best way possible,” he said.
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