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Officials: Communications failure caused by aging system is being addressed –

by Terri Hogan

Senior Staff Writer

Despite reports of recent failures with the county’s communications systems, officials say that problems are no more prevalent in Olney than other parts of the county and are not due to the community’s opposition to build a large tower at a site on Georgia Avenue (Route 97) at the Intercounty Connector (Route 200).

Montgomery County Police Acting Assist Chief Dinesh R. Patil said three separate issues regarding emergency communications are occurring in the county.

First, the radio system is outdated and Motorola no longer makes parts for it.

“You’ve probably heard about having to buy parts on eBay — that’s true,” he said.

The second issue is the most prominent and caused the problems that were reported to have occurred on Mother’s Day weekend when police dispatchers could not communicate with some officers. Instead, they heard strange noises.

The problem is reported to have started late in the night on May 10 and lasted about 14 hours.

“That was a network issue,” he said. “The radio system communicates through the network. We think that is remedied now.”

Patil said that radio towers communicate with each other, but if something gets “wonky,” it causes communication issues.

“We went  from having 17 channels to two,” he said. “The ability to communicate was limited. It was not a coverage issue. It’s like if there aren’t enough lanes open at a grocery store. It was not an Olney issue, it was countywide.”

He said officers took steps to lower traffic on the systems during the time of diminished capacity.

Another technical issue reportedly occurred June 4.

Patil said the third issue is the need for new towers proposed for Olney and the Potomac area.

“The community had concerns, so the Department Technology Services has directed us to look for alternative sites,” he said. “Those are our marching orders moving forward.”

Patil said there have been no communications problems or coverage issues specific to Olney.

“Everything is systemwide,” he said.

Last summer, Olney residents learned that a 355-foot communications tower was planned for Georgia Avenue at the Intercounty Connector. Residents and civic groups opposed the project because they were not given adequate notification and opportunity to be involved in the selection process.

In April, County Executive Marc Elrich (D) and State Highway Administrator Greg Slater agreed that the location as proposed would be taken off the table and a search would begin for alternative locations.

Dale Tibbitts, special assistant to Elrich, said even though they have fixed the recent problems with the existing system making it “better than before,” it is important to get a new system.

“Even with the old system working properly, it doesn’t have the same capabilities that the new system will have,” he said.

He confirmed that recent problems are not directly related to Olney, other than the time that it will take to find a new location for the tower.

Tibbitts said the target was to bring up the new system in late 2020, but having to find a new site for the Olney and Potomac/Darnestown towers could delay the system until 2021 or 2022.

“All the towers need to come up at the same time,” he said. “They communicate by microwave. You can’t have a tower not there because there will be a break in the system.”

He said the new system calls for 22 towers, but officials have asked the vendor if it is possible to bring up the new system with 20 towers and add the two additional towers a year later.

“We believe that can be done, and are conducting a feasibility study,” Tibbitts said. “In the interim, Olney would not have the full benefit of the new system, although there is overlap. It is not like Olney will have no emergency communication.”

He added, “If that is not going to work, it’s the county executive’s call. But I don’t believe putting the entire public safety system for the county off for another two years is the responsible thing to do.”

Tibbitts said “Site 7,” which is on 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 recently 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.”

As for why the county has not addressed the communications system sooner, Tibbitts said he believes officials started working on it about 10 years ago.

“They ran into three years of a recession and a severely restricted county budget,” he said. “The previous county executive had not decided on the last two tower sites, probably for the same reasons.”

Matt Quinn, president of the Greater Olney Civic Association (GOCA), said county workers and elected officials were aware that the first responder system was at the end of its life in 2006.

He said GOCA was told about plans for the tower at Georgia Avenue and the ICC last July. When the organization asked what problem it was solving, GOCA did not get an answer until March 5 of this year, he said.

“We have matched the urgency of the county to resolve this problem. We have found alternative sites, in less than four months,” Quinn said. “Imagine if they had engaged us earlier.”

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