Towering Issue

(from Maine Townsman, March 2010)
by Lee Burnett

Three days before the start of last year’s Can-Am Sled Dog race, a radio repeater on top of Deboullie Mountain failed, knocking out emergency radio communications all along the 250-mile course and throwing into doubt one of Fort Kent’s biggest events of the year.

“That put us in an awkward situation,” said Rita Cannan, president of Can-Am Crown. “You need to have communications in case something happens along the way. I don’t know what we would have done. I don’t think we would have jeopardized the mushers.”

A repair was made in the nick of time and the sled dog race went on as planned. But outages caused by worn out equipment, extreme weather or outright vandalism are hobbling the state’s antiquated two-way radio system. Every other week, a tower goes down, precipitating a scramble to maintain links with state troopers, game wardens, forest rangers and others.

“It’s almost become routine, and that’s absolutely unacceptable in a public safety environment,” said Shawn Romanoski, director of radio services for Maine Office of Information Technology.

Disabled communications haven’t compromised public safety in a big way, but the risk is growing, said Romanoski.

“It’s just the luck of the draw that something worse hasn’t happened,” he said. “It’s a numbers game. Eventually, we’re going to have [public safety compromised]. It’s only a matter of time. That’s why we’re trying to get things repaired as quickly as we can.”

The good news is that the state is making a multi-year, $50 million investment to bring its communications system into the modern age. It goes by the unwieldy name MSCommNet, which stands for Maine State Communications Network (www.maine.gov/mscommnet).

Towers will be consolidated and replaced by sturdier, more strategically located ones. Tower sites will have additional auxiliary power backup, security and remote monitoring. Signals will be digitized, narrow-banded, encrypted, and trunked to allow for more simultaneous and secure communications and more efficient use of bandwidth. In the end, it will be possible to drive from Kittery to Madawaska and maintain clear, uninterrupted radio contact with any or all of the 4,500 state employees with radios.

“MSCommNet will replace an aging state communications infrastructure that was, and is, in danger of catastrophic failure,” Robert McAleer, director of the Maine Emergency Management Agency, told the Kennebec Journal newspaper.

On the downside, the new system will complicate communications with local public safety agencies. The digital trunked system does not mesh perfectly with the analog system that most locals use. How exactly local fire, police and rescue departments will monitor state radio traffic and talk with their counterparts in state agencies is still being worked out. State officials have made every effort to reassure local folks of their commitment to “interoperability.” Skeptics aren’t convinced it will be as smooth as state officials have assured people and they wonder why the upgrade had to create a problem that doesn’t exist today

History

The state’s system is not really a system at all, but five separate networks each with its own set of towers and operated by a different public safety agency. Much of the equipment dates from 1974 and is four or five generations obsolete. An analysis of Maine’s networks by Macro Corp. documented the following deficiencies:

• Coverage within networks is not uniform or complementary, resulting in “significant overlap” in some regions and “no coverage” in others.

• Communications between agencies is “cumbersome and time-consuming ... particularly during significant emergencies” when multiple agencies respond.

• Sensitive law-enforcement communications are vulnerable to public eavesdropping via inexpensive frequency scanners.

• Much of the equipment is no longer supported by the manufacturer. Spare parts are scarce, expensive or not available at all. (Replacement parts are now bought almost exclusively through eBay auctions.)

Major Raymond Bessette of the Maine State Police estimates that due to interference, dead zones, overloaded frequencies and downed equipment, only 20 percent of radio calls go through. More than just state agencies are affected when communications fail. A power failure at Ossipee Hill tower in Waterboro Dec. l6 caused a five-hour blackout that disrupted communications in a 50-mile region in York and Oxford Counties, affecting 15 local agencies and seven state agencies, according to Maine Office of Information Technology Web site. (http://www.maine.gov/oit/services/radio/mscommnet/news/index.html) (The cause of the outage was attributed to delayed-effect vandalism: someone tampered with the primary power supply, which caused a back-up generator to run for 12 days straight, until a 250-gallon propane tank was drained.)

Communication problems during high-speed chases can endanger the public in multiple towns, as Maj. Bessette demonstrated. He replayed over the telephone the radio traffic of a high-speed chase on I-95 near Bangor, in an area prone to a distortion effect in radio transmissions. The excited voices of the dispatcher and troopers were audible only as undecipherable sound effects. It was unsettling to realize the noises were the same ones heard by every local officer monitoring the chase and every state trooper trying to bring the chase to a safe conclusion.

The folks who depend on the system cope as best they can. When a remote tower goes down in the middle of winter, there’s no alternative but to send technicians out on snowmobiles (or in a helicopter, at $1,300 an hour).

“The last thing I want to do is send our people to a mountain top in winter. It’s a harsh climate, difficult and expensive,” said Richard Thompson, the state’s chief information officer. In the meantime, radio calls are relayed through alternate routes if possible. Officers in the field often resort to cell phones, although at the scene of major emergencies, cell phone channels are quickly clogged.

“We’ve learned to cope,” said Thompson. “We’ve operated this way for a long time.”

An upgrade has been a long time coming. Maine State Police first sought funding to upgrade its system in 1999. At about the same time, exploding cell-phone use began crowding the airwaves and the Federal Communications Commission began pushing public safety agencies to narrow their signals to make more efficient use of scarce bandwidth. State officials soon realized it didn’t make sense to hang brand new antennas and repeaters (for narrowband transmission) on antiquated towers that were already seriously overloaded.

In 2003, state officials sought a comprehensive solution -- consolidating all networks in a single upgrade while migrating the entire system from the 150 MHz band to the much less congested 800 MHz band. But building a new system that relied on higher frequency (and thus shorter-range) signals would have entailed building 300 towers statewide at an overall cost of $202 million, which proved prohibitively expensive. Since then, the state has opted to upgrade and narrow-band with the lower frequency (longer-range) signals, which can be built with just 40 towers.

Digital vs. analog

The most controversial issue is whether conversion to digital transmission was necessary to the upgrade. Although, big city departments across the country are moving in that direction, most Maine police, fire and rescue departments still rely on analog signals. Digital’s advantages include encryption, a clearer signal and trunking capability, which creates many more channel options. But digital is expensive. Portland spent $3 million to upgrade to digital in 1999. Biddeford, Augusta and Kittery have also gone digital. The state had originally planned to stay with its analog system, but has since decided to go digital.

Last summer, the state signed a $50 million contract with Harris Corporation to build out and integrate the system.

“Originally we thought digital was too expensive for the money we could afford, but he price has come down substantially,” said Thompson. “The technology has improved. We think it is prudent.”

The digital trunked system will not only unite all agencies under a single communications umbrella, but it will enable users to create small and large “talk groups” at will. For example, a tactical team converging on an incident from all parts of the state will be able communicate amongst themselves without having to relay messages to each other through a dispatcher.

But digital conversion makes life more difficult for analog users. Separate frequencies and protocols have to be established so people in each system can talk to each other.

“Right now, we can monitor all the state police channels,” explains Jim Ryan, director of Penobscot Regional Communications Center. “We can hear that traffic -- a high-speed chase, bank robbery, assault. But once they go to digital -- unless they do something -- that’s going to go away.”

Ryan is concerned the state has unnecessarily complicated communication with locals. Penobscot Communications Center went ahead with a $500,000 to upgrade of its analog system (financed largely through Homeland Security grants) at a time when the state was saying it would remain analog.

“I’m not saying digital isn’t the way to go, but it’s expensive,” says Ryan. “They’ve built a Cadillac. They’ve said we can ride with them if we want to, but the only seat is the trunk or the hood. We can’t get inside.”

State officials have gone to great lengths to assure local officials that access to the state system will be maintained with some modifications. They have promised to rebroadcast the Maine State Police primary channel on a conventional channel, which would allow locals to monitor some but not all state radio traffic after they’ve reprogrammed. Locals will continue to be able to contact state agencies through a separate regional communications network called the RegionNet, which already exists, they say.

“Seventy percent of our calls for service involve other agencies,” said Maj. Bessette of the State Police. “How could I buy into a system that does not allow me to talk to the people I work with?”

In spite of the assurances, doubts remain. State Rep. Patsy Crockett, D-Augusta, has submitted legislation to redirect $28 million of the $50 million upgrade to reimburse locals to convert to a digital trunked system, which is the surest -- and most expensive -- way to access the state’s system.

Robert Howe, executive director of Maine County Commissioners Association, wonders if the promises about MSCommNet are more than can be delivered.

“I have no doubt they [state officials] are very sincere wanting to make sure the system has maximum interoperability,” said Howe, whose association supports Crockett’s legislation. “I question the technology and whether Harris can deliver it. I’m yet to be convinced.”

Crockett said she is insure how her bill will fare, but the state’s towers should be made available to local departments for free or at no cost.

Digital is not without problems. Some complain that digital software is not yet sophisticated enough to distinguish between the human voice and background noise, making it difficult, for example to understand a firefighter using a portable digital radio while standing next to an engine pump.

Portland was forced to spend extra money to fix problems with its digital system (which included conversion to 800 MHz). The system still does not support data transmission from in-cruiser laptops as originally planned. And firefighters have complained about losing radio contact inside some buildings because of the weaker UHF signals. The city has since re-established a ring of VHF frequencies and made other adjustments to remedy shortcomings, according to the Office of Information Technology.

And in Augusta, Firefighters Local 1650 has asked the city to abandon its brand-new digital system altogether and return to analog, according to the Kennebec Journal. Augusta switched to digital last year at a cost of $1 million (all but $250,000 of which was paid for through grants), but has experienced problems with consoles failing to dispatch firefighters on three separate occasions. “These events are unacceptable. Local 1650 is recommending that we return to the analog system ASAP,” according to a letter from union president Randall Gordon. City officials acknowledged the system “has bugs that need to be worked out” and that repairs are being made. Additional improvements will be made “as funding and grants come through,” according to Ralph St. Pierre, Augusta’s assistant city manager.

David Libby, a Falmouth town councilor with a broad background in radio communications, said digital conversion was unnecessary and will become even more costly in ways that are yet to be known.

“I’m afraid the state is going to be looking at paying to fix a mistake,” he said. The “saddest part” is that the state probably could have created a reasonably priced, “viable, user-friendly” analog system uniting state, county and local agencies had it acted five or 10 years ago, he said. “We will never see that opportunity again” he said. Regional communications centers in Penobscot, Cumberland, Waldo, Sagadahoc and Oxford Counties have upgraded on their own, he noted. “They couldn’t wait any longer.”

 

Lee Burnett is a freelance writer from Sanford, leeburnett_maine@hotmail.com