Trenton Sperry
tsperry@greeleytribune.com

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August 9, 2014
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Weld County government, emergency services at odds over communications system

A disagreement over radio communications that a Weld County fire chief described as a “political hot potato” has county government and emergency responders increasingly at odds, and some first responders say their complaints to commissioners have fallen on deaf ears.

In late June, letters from the Weld County Chiefs of Police Association and the Weld County Fire Chiefs Association were sent to Mike Wallace, director of the Weld County Regional Communications Center, with concerns about the way radio communications are handled in the county.

In particular, the letters complain of “inoperability with outside agencies” since the county’s move from using a statewide communications system to one owned and operated by county government.

After Weld spent about $18 million purchasing 10 radio towers, any out-of-county agency trying to contact an emergency service in the county has to go through the county’s dispatch center.

That move has created a safety concern for firefighters during emergencies, according to the group representing fire chiefs in Weld, which is led by Tom Beach, fire chief at the Southeast Weld Fire District based in Keenesburg.

Police chiefs in Weld voiced similar concerns in their letter, in which they note the chiefs “collectively disagree” with the county’s current setup and protocol. The police chiefs’ association is led by Brian Phillips, the police chief in Johnstown.

But Wallace said the groups’ complaints are misguided or even unfounded. He said the issues fire and police officials say their agencies are experiencing are likely the result of poor training on their part.

“In Weld County, we provide the infrastructure and the radio system,” Wallace said. “It’s each independent organization and public safety entity that’s required to train their personnel. ... They weren’t following protocol.”

But Herb Brady, fire chief at Windsor Severance Fire Rescue, said his department has been following the county’s protocol to the letter, and problems responders are experiencing with the system are of a systemic nature.

“Why would we not follow a procedure when our lives depend on it?” Brady said. “The thing I like to say — even with medical emergencies, too — is that emergencies don’t know and don’t care about a geopolitical boundary. They should be responded to the same and seamlessly, no matter what color the fire truck is.”

Change the channel

A few years ago, Colorado’s statewide system of radio communications, the Digital Trunked Radio System, was falling behind technologically, something all sides agree on.

“I do agree with Weld County’s assessment that the 800 MHz radio system had to be upgraded,” Brady said. “It fell many versions behind, and I applaud them for taking that initiative. It had to be done.”

Wallace said the need to upgrade the system was highlighted in the aftermath of September’s floods.

“(Regional Transportation District), which is on the statewide DTRS system that also had Weld County talk groups, decided they wanted to listen in to what was occurring with the flood,” Wallace said. “All of the traffic that’s going on on RTD is then funneled through our tower system. That impacts our system. That actually brought our system completely down.”

The move was also necessary, said Todd Vess, battalion chief at Windsor Severance Fire Rescue, because fire and police departments were using the technological equivalent of flip phones.

“It’s just like a cellphone; they have a finite life,” Vess said. “They get upgraded, they get better.”

When Weld County left the state’s DTRS radio system, it created a new one: the Front Range Communication Consortium, or FRCC. Under FRCC, agencies outside of the county must contact Weld’s dispatch center to get in contact with Weld’s first responders.

After learning that an outside agency will be joining them on-scene, Weld agencies must then switch to a new radio channel — called a mutual aid channel, or MAC — to be able to speak with them, adding what the Weld County Fire Chiefs Association says is an unnecessary level of bureaucracy to the system that could lead to delays in response to emergencies.

“Emergency incident operations will be well underway in most cases when out-of-county mutual aid resources arrive,” reads the association’s letter to Wallace. “Necessitating the entire incident, including responders engaging in fire and rescue operations, be switched to other channels in the middle of operations adds an unnecessary layer of safety concerns and confusion, and creates the possibility of essential communications being missed or interrupted.”

Lt. Kerry Koppes, who handles most of the communications responsibilities at WSFR, said the biggest problem facing firefighters attempting to make that switch is that it’s much more involved than just turning a knob on their radios.

“If I inadvertently bump my controller over here, I’ve now switched myself off of the FRCC system and now I’m operating on the state system,” said Koppes, holding up one of the department’s newer individual radios and pointing to a tiny switch on its top edge. “And you don’t know it. You have no idea. ... So I run the risk of, when this is in my bumper gear or in my satchel somewhere on the scene, bumping this switch and then suddenly I am without transmission. And this is our lifeline.”

For more than 10 years, each Weld fire agency has occupied its own talk group, which is essentially a radio channel each agency operates on during a call.

Under the old system, while switching to mutual aid channels was possible, Weld agencies usually just had out-of-county or even out-of-district first responders patched directly into the talk group they were already operating on during an emergency.

The county is staunchly opposed to this, claiming it was a breach of protocol before and is unacceptable now.

“I think it’s just kind of a lack of understanding of how the two systems work,” said Weld County Commissioner Barbara Kirkmeyer. “If there’s a disaster — or it could just be an incident — where you get three or four different agencies coming to it, protocol requires they all go to a mutual aid channel. They want to go to a talk group. Now if they go to a mutual aid channel, they’re recorded and we can monitor what’s going on. So if there’s a problem and they need additional help or something, we can dispatch it.”

The problem, officials at the police and fire agencies say, is sometimes the change is not as simple as the county makes it out to be.

Can you hear me now?

Sitting in Windsor Severance Fire Rescue Station No. 3, Koppes holds up a radio and points to the device’s screen.

“This is the signal indicator, just like what you have on your phone. As you can see, right now? Zero bars,” Koppes said. “This is our primary operational talk group, Fireground 4. We’re in our station on the hill and we have zero signal.”

When the county switched systems and took over the radio towers, they also disallowed first responders from using towers the county doesn’t own.

“When we were operating under the statewide system, we had multiple repeater sites that we could access all along the Front Range here,” Koppes said, noting three towers are even within view of the station. “Now at this station, in order to access the Weld talk groups that we normally function on, we had to put a directional antenna on the roof to get a signal to the repeater in Nunn so we could actually get a signal out.”

Wallace, in his office at the county’s dispatch center, pulls out a map that shows the differences in coverage after the county removed itself from the state’s radio network.

“There might have been a little bit of change, but the coverage is still pretty much the same as it was,” said Kirkmeyer. “It might have shifted just a little bit. That happens, and it’s a function of you have to have more towers put up. But like we’ve told you, we’ve invested over $18 million in the tower infrastructure itself, and we tried to make sure that all of the populated areas are covered. We continue to do the best we can do.”

Unfortunately, it seems the county’s best isn’t yet good enough. Koppes noted coverage areas can be deceiving because topography often determines the radios’ signal strength.

“The only other site we can hit from this location is one tower in Greeley,” Koppes said. “This station is on the opposite side of a hill, so what happens is we have spotty access at best to that Greeley repeater. So, basically, this station is at the mercy of one repeater in Nunn when we’re operating on that system.”

Officials with WSFR talked about multiple times when firefighters’ individual radios and even the radios in fire engines had no signal to speak of. In one instance, Koppes said, the danger to firefighters and even the public was readily apparent.

“I keyed up four times to call our dispatch center to let them know we were en route and to get additional information about a three-car, mass-casualty accident on the interstate,” he said. “Four times I could not get a signal to talk to my dispatch center. Not a good time for that to occur.”

Windsor’s Fire Station No. 3 is on the western edge of Weld County, and while agencies more central to the county may have better reception, officials said most are experiencing the same issues.

“I can’t relate the specifics that other departments are going through, but they’re going through similar situations,” said Mike Blackwill, operations chief at WSFR. “In some of your more remote locations, the towers that they utilize belong to the state, so they can no longer utilize those. Just at the chiefs’ meeting a couple weeks ago, we talked about this and really they’re at a point now that they’re just at a loss.”

Excuses and apathy

The goal of the Weld fire and police chiefs’ associations in writing letters to Wallace was never to demand a return to the old system, officials said.

“I think the first step is just first of all acknowledging that there is a problem,” Blackwill said. “If they sincerely do feel that it is because it’s not being used properly, well then maybe they need to take some steps to train if they truly feel that way.”

Nevertheless, the fire chiefs’ association claims any attempts to contact communications officials to voice concerns with the system “have been met with excuses and apathy.” The sentiment is shared by the police chiefs’ association.

“As users of radio communications, we feel that we know best what is needed to accomplish our mission,” the police chiefs’ letter reads. “These requests, to this point, have been denied.”

As for the county side, both Wallace and Kirkmeyer said the county has so much invested in the system already that turning back now would be a mistake.

“In every major event throughout this entire state — DTRS, whatever it’s been — there’s always been a failure in communications,” Wallace said. “Our goal is to minimize those and ensure that doesn’t occur for Weld County citizens so that we can talk and communicate and get the services out.”

With more than $5 million of county funds dedicated to the upkeep of the system every year, Kirkmeyer said the county has a big stake in the decisions made even though the Weld County Sheriff’s Office only receives about a quarter of the system’s calls.

“There is a responsibility on the first responder side, on those agencies, that they maintain their training and that they have an understanding of the system that they’re getting for basically free,” Kirkmeyer said. “We’re constantly trying to ensure that we have the best system that we can have up. But changes are made and sometimes entities just don’t understand all of the changes that are happening. ... We try to keep everybody as informed as well as we possibly can.”

Most of all, Brady said, he’s optimistic everyone will come to the table to hammer out a solution.

“Now that there’s a disconnect in the systems across this geopolitical boundary, that’s where some of our challenges have suddenly come up,” Brady said. “I have every confidence that the county will continue to partner with the police and fire agencies to resolve these most recent incompatibility issues.”


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My Windsor Now Updated Aug 9, 2014 06:41PM Published Aug 9, 2014 06:41PM Copyright 2014 My Windsor Now. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.