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'That's your lifeline' | Montgomery County emergency crews manage radio problems over Mother's Day weekend

Montgomery County's technology department said some radio channels went down from Friday night through Saturday evening.
Credit: WUSA9

MONTGOMERY COUNTY, Md. — Anyone who has ever been pulled over knows the sequence of sounds:

Quick sirens

A door slam

Police chatter pulsing out of the cop’s radio as the officer sidles up to the car

Saturday, some of those radios went quiet.

Montgomery County first responders dealt with radio problems over the weekend that began around 11:30 p.m. Friday and weren't resolved until 6:30 p.m. Saturday.

The police union said the shortage could have been catastrophic.

“Apparently there were 12 of the channels that were down on Saturday out of a total about 17,” said Brian Stafford, chief of the safety committee for the Montgomery County chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police. “I was told that what it meant operationally was that no more than four or five people could be on the air at the same time.”

A spokesman for the county’s Department of Technology Services, Ohene Gyapong, told WUSA9.

The problem came down to a timing issue of sorts. The radio system’s timing fell out of sync, causing the failure. He said the county should have the system fixed in about a week. 

 Stafford said the radio shortage was not only alarming, but could have been dangerous.

“That's your lifeline,” he said. “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.”

Pete Piringer, spokesman for Montgomery County Fire and Rescue, said first responders were unable to access all radio channels. The first responders switched to other channels and continued to operate without incident, he said.

Montgomery County Police spokesman, Captain Tom Jordan, told WUSA9 the radio problems caused virtually no impact to services. Officers relied on their squad car computers, radios in cars and talked on other channels.

While both agencies explained the shortage as an inconvenience, an internal email obtained by WUSA9 shows during the event, MCPD command staff called it a significant issue and told officers to consider their "deployment and tactics."'

Capt. Jordan said MCPD leadership was dealing with an unknown at the time. 

“Thankfully it did not have as significant of an impact, but we had to act as if the situation would get worse.  Hope for the best, but prepare for the worst,” he wrote to WUSA9 in an email.

For the police union, the incident draws attention to another issue: their radio system is badly in need of an upgrade.

Currently, there are 11 towers running the radio system. The county plans to eventually host 22 towers, but the project has been delayed at least a year, and maybe two. 

The Montgomery County Council is holding a joint Public Safety/Government Operations Committee work session June 18 to figure out exactly how long the project will take, and to determine contingency plans and associated costs.

Montgomery County DTS told WUSA9 the shortage over the weekend was not related to any fixes provided by the future upgrade. 

Stafford said if there had been a mass event Saturday, the radio failure could have been a nightmare scenario.

“It would have been very problematic in terms of getting the information to the officers, letting them know where they need to be,” he said.