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Fire union to Maryland governor: Act now or risk catastrophic failure of the radio system

After a series of radio shortages, unions representing fire and police are sounding the alarm.
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MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. — The message from Montgomery County’s fire union to Governor Larry Hogan was direct and alarming. 

The county’s emergency radio system is on the brink of “catastrophic failure,” and officials must find a way to replace the system “as quickly as humanely possible.”

A three-page letter sent June 5 by International Association of Firefighters Lodge 1664 President Jeffrey Bundle to Hogan details concerns that the radio system is long overdue for an upgrade. Without a major change, the system could crash, the letter said.

“The Montgomery County radio system is at grave risk of catastrophic failure and has been failing,” the letter said.

“At this point, each and every day that public safety workers are in Montgomery County must rely on the Montgomery County radio system, more than one million [sic] residents, and my membership are at risk.”

The Fraternal Order of Police’s Montgomery County chapter spoke out about their own fears recently after a radio shortage over Mother’s Day weekend lasted from Friday evening until Saturday night.

Ohene Gyapong, the public information officer for the county’s Department of Technology Services, said the system’s timing fell out of sync, rendering some radio channels inaccessible.

Gyapong insisted the radio shortage over Mother’s Day weekend was unrelated to anything planned upgrades would have fixed.   

Then, late last month, Montgomery County Fire and Rescue Service Public Information Officer Pete Piringer tweeted about yet another radio shortage in the county.

WUSA9 reached Gyapong Monday, but he wasn’t immediately able to explain what caused the most recent shortage and said he’d get back to us.

The letter comes as the county is grappling with major delays in a multi-million-dollar project to upgrade the system. The project was supposed to be completed by now and would have included adding 11 new towers to the original 11 towers operating radio traffic, for a total of 22 towers. 

According to county officials, the project won’t be completed for another two years, as at least one site green-lighted for a tower location met resistance from nearby residents. The letter indicates the IAFF believes Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich bowed to resident pressure when he insisted the site move. The IAFF believes that choice trades aesthetics for safety.  

Both the IAFF and the FOP told WUSA9 the current radios are so old the manufacturer, Motorola, stopped selling parts for broken-down radios. 

“Parts are no longer manufactured, and the county relies on scavenging parts from decommissioned systems of similar vintage, and sometimes, eBay, to maintain the system,” the letter said.

Among union members for both police and fire there is fear and frustration. Radios are one of the most critical tools utilized by emergency services.

Communication failures can be life-threatening.

“That’s your lifeline,” said Brian Stafford, chief of the safety committee for the Montgomery County FOP, in an interview in May. “If you're in really big trouble, that's how you're letting others know you're in really big trouble and that's how your aid comes to you.”

Still, official word from Montgomery County police and fire has downplayed the impact of the shortages.  Both agencies have said the impacts to service have been minimal, though the letter said the shortages severely hampered emergency communications.

MCFRS PIO Piringer told WUSA9 Monday the agency didn’t have a comment beyond what’s outlined in the letter. MCPD Public Information Officer Captain C. Thomas Jordan told WUSA9 they agency hasn’t seen the letter and wouldn’t comment in IAFF actions.

The Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration provided the following statement:

“The Maryland Department of Transportation State Highway Administration (MDOT SHA) recognizes the need for an upgraded communications system and remains a committed partner with Montgomery County in this project. MDOT SHA continues to work with all stakeholders in reviewing the best possible sites to ensure the safety of the citizens and the first responders that work hard every day to protect them.”

WUSA9 emailed Governor Hogan’s press secretary, Shareese Churchill, Monday morning, but has not yet received a response.

WUSA9 also reached Barry Hudson, County Executive Elrich's spokesman, who at the time of publishing this story was working on a response.