ROCKVILLE – Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) took a shot at officials in Montgomery County for their handling of a public safety communication outage that occurred over Mother’s Day weekend.
Hogan criticized the county’s rejection of a site for a radio communications tower, saying the delay in implementing upgrades to its public safety communication system has risked the safety of residents in the county.
“Reliable communications can mean the difference between life and death,” Hogan said. “Inexplicably, some Montgomery County officials are considering standing in the way of a radio tower that is critical to our first responders. This comes after a 14-hour outage over Mother’s Day weekend and firefighters raising concerns that the current system is ‘at grave risk of catastrophic failure.’”
At about 11:30 p.m. on May 10, the Montgomery County safety communications system experienced a significant system failure, disrupting communications channels for fire and rescue services for more than 12 hours. It is not the first system failure the county has had for its public safety communications, something that is caused by an aging, out-of-date infrastructures, according to country officials.
While the county executive is exploring sites for new radio towers as part of an effort to modernize the aging system, he has delayed the process, drawing the ire of the governor and questions from the county council.
While Hogan has blamed County Executive Marc Elrich for delaying plans to update the system, Elrich blames his predecessor.
“I am committed to doing everything possible to ensure that the people of Montgomery County are safe,” Elrich said in a statement. “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.”
The construction of the radio tower is part of a larger effort to rebuild the county’s public safety infrastructure under what is called the Public Safety System Modernization capital project. While the original date for completion of the project had been Fiscal Year 2013, now final completion for the project might be 2020 or later.
Elrich has delayed the construction of two radio towers, as the county begins to look for alternative sites. While county officials originally planned to build towers at the corner of Georgia Avenue and the Intercounty Connector and in Bretton Woods, Elrich opposed those plans due to objections from the local communities.
The change in sites delays the full implementation of the towers by at least a year, given the towers need to be tested in the summer, when trees are in full bloom.
Hogan is not the only one who has criticized Elrich for delaying construction of the radio towers. In April, Councilmembers Hans Riemer (D-at large) and Sidney Katz (D-3), wrote a letter to Elrich urging him to reinstate the old plan for the towers at the original sites.
“While we recognize that there have been some concerns raised from the surrounding communities and transparency into the site selection process could have been better, the two towers being reconsidered have met extensive, complex, technical and regulatory requirements and are poised to be implemented without further delaying the critical radio system infrastructure project,” Katz and Riemer wrote in their letter to Elrich.
Mother’s Day weekend was not the only disruption. On May 22 and May 28, the system experienced similar issues, and the problem is likely to continue until it is completely updated, according to county staff.
“There have been several delays already, and that continues to make the county dependent on the current aging system,” said Susan J. Farag, a legislative analyst for the county council. “This delay will extend that dependency for one or two more years, and that risks degradation events like what we had over Mother’s Day weekend, or possibly total failures of the system.”
The system consists of 11 radio towers throughout the county, connected by a Fibernet 1 network. The 16-year-old system is obsolete, and the county has nowhere to go for a replacement, with its limited expertise to repair the system.
The condition of the system is so bad that it is at risk for a “catastrophic failure,” according to the documents presented to the County Council Public Safety and Government Operations committees on June 17.
While Hogan said Elrich’s delay has hurt public safety, Elrich has insisted that his following alternatives site plans at the community’s behest, does not negatively impact public safety.
“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,” Elrich said. “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.”