Md. counties unveil compatible fire radios
Copyright 2006 The Baltimore Sun Company
Devices let emergency workers easily communicate with crews from other jurisdictions
By NICK SHIELDS
The Baltimore Sun
When a fuel tanker exploded two years ago on Interstate 95 near the border of Baltimore and Howard counties, emergency crews from various jurisdictions not only battled deadly flames. They also faced challenges in communicating with one another.
"The fire service lines melt away, but we've got to be able to talk," Richard Petry, a fire director who oversees emergency communications for the Baltimore County Fire Department, said yesterday as officials unveiled radios that they said would go a long way toward solving the problem.
Now, with a few swift finger taps on a radio keypad, county firefighters can listen to their counterparts from the city or other counties and coordinate their efforts without a delay.
Officials said the county has bought 340 of the portable fire radios and that a U.S. Department of Homeland Security Assistance to Firefighters Grant paid $747,000 of the cost, which exceeded $1 million.
During a demonstration of the radios yesterday at the county's Halethorpe fire station, County Executive James T. Smith Jr. said it is crucial for emergency workers to be able to communicate easily with crews from neighboring jurisdictions.
"As communities around the county take a closer look at Homeland Security and our ability to deal with natural disasters, we see more and more the need for regional cooperation," Smith said.
Representatives from Baltimore City and Howard and Anne Arundel counties also gathered at the fire station to demonstrate how within seconds each department could communicate with Baltimore County and one another in an emergency.
Before the county purchased the radios, messages between jurisdictions had to be relayed through dispatchers or electronically patched, fire officials said.
The new radios will allow responders from various jurisdictions to use a common channel and listen to each other's systems almost instantly.
Fire officials said the radios, similar to equipment used in the other counties, have gradually been distributed throughout the Baltimore County Fire Department since last year.
Officials agreed yesterday that the radios could have helped two years ago when a fuel tanker veered off an overpass and landed on Interstate 95 in Howard County. The explosion, which drew fire crews from Baltimore-Washington International Airport and nearby jurisdictions, killed four people.
"The lack of direct communication did make it very challenging," Petry said. The new radios "will help alleviate those challenges," he said.
"You can talk to the incident commander directly. If he has an order for you, it's real time. You know what's going on. You're not going to be out there in limbo," he said.
The county Fire Department's radios can also be used to communicate with the county's Police Department and are capable of connecting with neighboring police agencies, Petry said.
Arthur Cate, division chief for information technology and communications at the Baltimore City Fire Department, also emphasized that during an emergency, coordination and communication are key.
"To have an easy way to communicate with other first responders is paramount to have a successful event," Cate said. "Any delay affects firefighters' safety and civilian safety. Thirty seconds makes a difference."