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911 Radio maintenance neglected - By Dale Sinner - Staff Writer - Fauquier County, Virginia
April 2000 ?

County officials this week admitted lack of maintenance and oversight contributed to an emergency radio system failure Sept. 26.

The fire and rescue radio system base transmitter -- for dispatching response to 911 calls -- failed after two rodents crawled into the cabinet and short-circuited the electronics. That transmitter stands in a "radio shack" at the Warrenton Training Center, a federal intelligence base on View Tree Mountain just west of town.

County officials twice since last November had received warnings about rodents at the transmitter site. Citizens also had complained more frequently about lax maintenance of the system. Major system failures -- when a base radio cannot transmit or receive -- have occurred nine times since 1995.

Sheriff Joe Higgs and other county officials cite the failures as proof that Fauquier needs a new emergency radio system. Planning for that system, which could cost $8 million, has begun. Bid specifications for the system could be ready by December, Projects Manager Mark Cornwell said.

Building the complete system could take five to seven years, however. Meanwhile, the emergency response system must rely on vacuum-tube transmitters, the oldest installed in 1972. Critics since 1997 have argued that frequent, preventative maintenance could avert failures -- such as the Sept. 26 incident -- and make the system more reliable. "It's just part of the mentality," said Bill Weber, a Federal Aviation Administration air traffic systems specialist and retired volunteer fireman who lives near Broad Run. "We take it easy till something happens. I mean, what does it take to pick up the trash and put the wires in a conduit?"

In a November 1998 letter to the board of supervisors, Mr. Weber claimed that power, telephone and antenna cables at the View Tree Mountain site lay exposed in a debris-filled trough in the concrete floor of the radio shack. He further warned that rodents and insects easily could enter the building. A June 3 memo from Fredericksburg-based Communications Specialists Inc., which has a contract to maintain the radio system, warned that rodents and snakes could get into the building. Copies of that memo -- written two months after Communications Specialists took over the maintenance contract -- went to the communications center director and the county procurement office. "There's nothing warmer (and more attractive to vermin) than a 300-watt power amp(lifier)," Communications Specialists Vice President Drew Wine said in a recent interview.

Mr. Weber complained that making the county's emergency radio system more reliable would cost comparatively little. (In 1997, he served on a committee that advised the county planning commission about the capital implications of the proposed new radio system.) "They (county officials) say, 'Oh, your lives are valuable and we're gonna spend $8 million on a new radio system'," he said. "Well, is it not worth $10,000 to get the current system working (properly)?" Mr. Weber argued that simple fixes, such as installing cable covers and screened panels on the cabinets, could have prevented the rodent intrusion. Sheriff Higgs said that with antiquated equipment, such failures have become common.

The most recent failure disturbed officials even more because it took the new maintenance contractor five days to completely restore the system. Additionally, Communications Specialists failed to put together an improvised, interim system until the base transmitter could be repaired. County officials called the county's previous radio maintenance contractor, Chantilly-based Wireless Communications, for help. Company owner Roy Anderson assembled a stop-gap system in less than two hours. "How this was handled was totally unacceptable and will not be tolerated in the future," Sheriff Higgs said of the response from Communications Specialists, whose contract took effect in April.

He instructed the county procurement office to notify the company by letter that its contract with the county will be canceled in 30 days. From the afternoon of Sunday, Sept. 26, until the following Tuesday, 911 dispatchers had no fully operational radio system. "We could not transmit voice and we could not transmit tones (to activate fire and rescue volunteers' pagers)," Warrenton/Fauquier Joint Communications Center Director Sue Powles said. "At times we could 'drop' tones, at times we couldn't. At times we could transmit (voice), at times we couldn't. It wasn't one entire failure, it was multiple failures."

Dispatchers discovered the base transmitter had failed when they couldn't reach the Remington Volunteer Fire Department and Rescue Squad to respond to a traffic accident at Routes 28 and 29 just north of town. They unsuccessfully attempted to dispatch six Fauquier fire and rescue companies in succession. When one company could not be contacted, dispatchers radioed the next closest one. Finally, they telephoned Culpeper County for help. When Culpeper dispatched a rescue unit, volunteers in Remington finally heard the call on their scanners. "The Remington guys heard them dispatch Culpeper and said, 'What in the world?' " recalled Office of Emergency Services Coordinator Philip Myer. "They phoned in and said, 'What are you doing dispatching Culpeper?' They didn't hear a thing" on Fauquier radio channels.

Technicians from Communications Specialists came that afternoon and found the problem. Company technicians could not get replacement parts on Sunday, however. They told the communications center dispatchers to use their backup transmitter (in a shack behind the jail on Warrenton's Lee Street).

The backup transmitter failed the next afternoon (Monday, Sept. 27). Sheriff Higgs said Communications Specialists inspect the backup system on a monthly basis. Dispatchers then relied on telephones to communicate with the county's fire and rescue companies. Meanwhile, Mr. Myer and volunteers tried pirating parts from other radios for Communications Specialists technicians to use in repairing the backup transmitter.

Nothing worked. "At that point, (the technicians) said, 'There's nothing else we can do'," Mr. Myer said. He and some volunteers scrambled to set up a makeshift base transmitter atop of the sheriff's office building, which also houses the communications center, at Keith and Lee streets. At 1 a.m. Tuesday, they could communicate by voice to the fire and rescue stations, but still could not activate the pager tones. Communications Specialists technicians had installed new parts in the main transmitter on View Tree Mountain by late Tuesday afternoon. But the transmitter still failed.

Mr. Myer then called previous contractor, Mr. Anderson, reputed to be most familiar with the county's radios, for help. Mr. Anderson arrived at 5 p.m. and had a makeshift system working 90 minutes later. Communications Specialists technicians took the fire and rescue base transmitter to their shop and returned it Thursday. Sheriff Higgs wants the old contractor back. "We never had this problem (of repairs taking so long) before. The previous vendor knew the equipment, helped set it up. . (Mr. Anderson) had a stake in the system because he lives in Fauquier County (near Catlett)," the sheriff said. "We thought the current vendor knew the equipment as well. But we had a major failure the vendor couldn't get fixed."

But the system failure raises questions about the county's oversight of maintenance. Communications Specialists Inc. and Mr. Weber had warned of the potential for rodents to damage the transmitter. Among county officials, only Sheriff Higgs and Lt. Col. Warren Jenkins of his office have inspected the transmitter site. Permission to visit the shack requires a background check from the Warrenton Training Center security staff. (Both the sheriff and training center officials in the last week refused to allow The Citizen to visit the transmitter site.)

Technicians from Communications Specialists had to wait three hours on Sept. 26 to gain access to the training center, according to company President Billy Hoovler. The county contract requires the maintenance company to inspect the View Tree Mountain site only twice a year. That requirement remains unchanged from the previous contract with Wireless Communications.

In writing the contract specifications, county officials should have required more frequent inspections, County Administrator Bob Lee admitted this week. "We're going to be with this (radio) system for the next several years," Mr. Lee said. "I'm sure (semi-annual visits) are not enough. Monthly inspections make a whole lot of sense. Things have changed a lot (with the aging system), but I suspect the contracts have not." Representatives of the current and former contractors agree that conducting just two inspections a year leaves the system vulnerable. "Semi-annual (visits) are fine for new equipment," but older equipment should be checked more often, said Mr. Anderson, the former contractor. "I can't argue the point. There are some things that can be improved relatively inexpensively that probably should be done." The county will establish a more rigorous maintenance schedule, Mr. Lee promised.

The old and new contracts require that contractors respond only to calls for repairs and "provide a semi-annual preventive maintenance program." "It's incumbent on us to be far more proactive than we've been in the past," Mr. Lee said. Communications Center Director Ms. Powles has never visited View Tree Mountain. "Unfortunately, we're reactive," Ms. Powles said. "When everything is working right, you don't think about it. . . You take it for granted. I was supposed to go on a site visit with the state police, but I don't know what happened with that." Sheriff Higgs said when he visited the site in July, "everything looked fine." Mr. Hoovler said that while the View Tree Mountain radio shack wasn't the worst he has seen, problems exist nonetheless. "Our job is to fix radios. Maintenance of the site is up to whomever controls the site," Mr. Hoovler said. "Some of the cabinets don't have covers, the ones with covers have holes in them. If (county officials) ever went there, I think they'd take a different approach to maintenance. Keeping the mice out is not expensive. Having a 300-watt station blow up is."

Questions of responsibility for conditions inside the radio shack may become moot. Officials at the training center said they've called exterminators to take care of the rodent problem. Virginia State Police radio technicians have begun improvements to the radio shack to make it secure for their own use, according to state police Telecommunications Engineer John Agee. "We plan to improve it, harden it against lightning, seal it and improve it for everyone," Mr. Agee said. Ms. Powles and Sheriff Higgs plan monthly checks of the backup system behind the detention center. The county pays Communications Specialists $2,873 a month to maintain base and portable radio equipment. "The costs of a more proactive maintenance schedule are really minimal," Mr. Lee said. "We're not talking big bucks here."