Emergency Communications: Can You Hear?

While an injured whitewater rafter clings to a rock in the Wolf River rapids, a northeast Wisconsin volunteer fire department learns there’s a problem with its communications tower. Who is looking out for the communications systems of our rural emergency services, and what can you do to help improve them?

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When the folks on “Green Acres” had to climb a telephone pole to make a call, it was funny. But no one here was laughing when our rural volunteer fire department had to resort to something similar. We had been paged out for a river rescue — an injured rafter clinging to a rock in a Class III rapid.

That may sound straightforward, but as usual it wasn't. There were concerns about other members of the party, which had become separated. It was pouring rain, cold, and lightning flashed around us. We had team members on the water and others deployed at a location several miles downstream, and were getting ready to send searchers out on foot while trying to get an ambulance unstuck from mud halfway up the wheels.

And we couldn't communicate with any of our people. Our portable radios were not connecting with the county's communication infrastructure. So the tallest person on the scene stood on the tailgate of a pick-up truck holding a portable radio as high as possible (despite the lightning), and the best we could get was broken and scratchy.

In truth, our communication problem wasn't entirely a surprise. Earlier that week, the emergency management director for the Village of White Lake, Wisconsin, detected a problem in the system during a test of the siren at Gardner Dam Scout Camp on the Wolf River. He contacted the company that services the antenna used for local government in our area, then contacted our county's emergency management director with the bad news: The antenna had been lowered more than 100 feet. At that height, you might just as well climb a telephone pole.

Cell phone dead spots and the challenge of getting good Internet service are facts of life in rural areas. Like the common cold, you hope someday there will be a cure. But suppose that cold turns into pneumonia, or you have a heart attack from the frustration of doing business with data transfer rates that can't keep up with your urban competitors. When you call 911 for help, you're gaining access to a local government public safety communications system that faces greater challenges than dropped calls and video buffering.

And it's not just the patient whose life may depend on that communication system. Volunteer firefighters, emergency medical technicians and search-and-rescue personnel count on it, too. These emergency personnel need it to dispatch them to those in need, and they use it to acknowledge a page and until they return safely to their own homes or jobs.

The recent breakdown in that system in my area made a difficult situation more hazardous. And as you can imagine, that was followed by a deluge of uncomfortable but informative conversations among volunteers, local government officials and service providers. By the time you read this, our problem should be resolved — for now. But what if it's your problem next time?

Here are some things you should know about public safety communications systems in rural areas.

Who Owns Those Towers?

Good question. In Langlade County, two of the towers are owned by the county. Others are owned by private enterprises. County zoning ordinances require any towers erected here to allow space for emergency communications equipment. The contracts are non-lapsing and the county does not pay for the use of the space, only for its equipment and maintenance. Those towers generally reserve space at the top for local government, then quickly fill up the rest with paying tenants.

The White Lake antenna was located on one of those cell company towers. Those who remember the old days when we were paged off another tower some 20 miles away appreciate how much better service has been from the White Lake Tower. Until last fall, that is. People weren't getting pages, and transmissions were broken and obscured by static. The problems got worse through the winter.

Rafters experience white water on a different section of the Wolf River.

Our county emergency manager spent 30-plus years as a sheriff's deputy, so he knows we depend on communications relayed via that tower. He had the dealer who services our equipment up there working on it at least four times. When he got the bill for $4,200, he expected the problem to be fixed. When he found out they had lowered our antenna by more than 100 feet without asking or informing him…. Well, it's probably good he doesn't carry a firearm at work any more.

At the lower height, the technician found a spot that got less radio frequency interference from the strobes at the top of the tower, the guy wires that stabilize the tower and other equipment on the tower (a.k.a. paying tenants). But at that height, if the technician had looked out at our service area, it's hard to understand how he could miss seeing the forest for the trees.

It's Not Easy Being Green.

Our service area includes national forest, state forest and county forest crop lands, all dotted with large boulders pushed around and dropped willy-nilly by a long-ago glacier. The low spot is the Wolf River, where rapids range in difficulty from Class II to Class IV. All this beautiful scenery attracts many visitors to the area for rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, hunting and other outdoor activities. So our fire department's search-and-rescue unit gets its share of calls to help lost hunters, lost mountain bikers, and people lost or injured on the river.

But you don't have to be this wooded to experience significant communications challenges in a rural area. In your area the problem may be the distance or other terrain features. Or it may just be that the equipment isn't up to the tasks we expect it to perform. According to Jonnathan Busko M.D.:

Rural [emergency medical] systems are usually less developed with respect to intra-agency and inter-agency communications capabilities. The ability to talk between the dispatch center and the crew is often limited by dated technology. The ability to transmit data, such as 12-lead ECGs [heart monitoring] or video telemetry, is typically non-existent or severely limited. Cellular communications are plagued by “dead areas,” dropped calls, and general low fidelity. A survey in 1999 by NASEMSO identified the communications infrastructure as the area of greatest need financially for rural systems. Since September 11, 2001, there has been significant financial investment in public safety communications. While urban systems work to develop interoperable communications between all public safety agencies, many rural EMS systems cannot guarantee their communications are even operable, let alone interoperable, on a day-to-day basis.

 

It Can Be a Tower of Babel.

It's not just fire departments, emergency medical systems (EMS) and law enforcement using local government channels. The airways are crowded with other users that may include the Department of Natural Resources and public utilities. Last winter, when parts of the Upper Midwest had record cold temperatures that caused widespread freeze-ups in public water utility lines, we heard a lot of pages for the on-call worker for the water department in the county seat.

Public utilities are considered integral to homeland security. But a lot of that traffic on local government channels could be carried out effectively by other means. And some of it will be, soon, in our area, thanks to E-Sponder — software that sends out simultaneous phone, text and email alerts instead of paging for non-emergency situations.

Paging is what the local government communication system was designed to support. And paging was a huge step up from the telephone tree used to summon firefighters when my husband joined the volunteer fire department in 1987. But now, in addition to paging, the system is expected to support more traffic on more channels. We need to be able to get the alert for volunteers. We also need to know who's responding and to where, to get situation reports from those first on the scene, to relay information to and get authorizations from medical control and a hundred other things. And in rural areas where small departments rely on mutual aid partners and where EMS transports are long, we must be able to communicate with each other.

We do not take interoperability for granted in our service area. Memories are too strong of a river rescue call in 1990 when we had none. I violated some FCC standards with the language I used that day trying to relay a message through the Langlade County dispatch center to the Coast Guard helicopter hovering overhead. We had no way to ask politely for that aircraft to leave the scene of what had become, after 24 hours, a body recovery, before its rotor wash resulted in injuries or deaths to the team on the ground and in the water.

Our recent communications failure at the rapids in the Wolf River was at the same location as that 1990 drowning. Our current county emergency manager was still a sheriff's deputy then. And he was in that helicopter back then. He knows the risks our volunteers face. So he's allowed to joke about how I took 53 minutes of his day myself and sent a county board supervisor to his office to find answers to our recent communications problem. He's as ticked off by this system failure as we are. As he says dryly, he doesn't appreciate being the one who paid a $4,200 bill for service call to our tower that made our problems worse.

It's Always about Money.

While it's possible to get a used mobile radio for as little as $300, new units run more than $1,000 each, making the radios a significant expense for small rural fire departments and ambulance services. The systems that support them are a significant expense for units of government like our county. That makes sharing space on a cell tower look pretty good compared to the $500,000 or more it would cost to erect a county-owned tower. Our emergency management director would like to upgrade to a county-wide simulcast system, but that price tag is about $1.2 million. That's a hard sell to a county board whose members are faced with difficult choices about how to allocate limited resources to cover everything from the highway department to the library, airport, fairgrounds, health department, and a range of public safety services including the sheriff's department and the jail. I'm guessing they get more calls from constituents about highway matters than about the public safety communications system.

So for now, it looks like they're moving our antenna off the cell tower and to the water tower in the village. It was there before it was moved to the higher cell tower. But that was before the cell tower's red flashing lights were replaced with white strobes, which seem to create more radio frequency interference. That was before the guy wires were changed, altering their resonance. That was before the cell tower got so crowded with other users that there's no room at the top without significant radio frequency interference.

The ironic twist is that my own Internet service provider is a tenant on the water tower. If they have to shift their equipment to accommodate local government, I may lose the line-of-sight wireless reception that's essential for my business.

Is It too Much to Ask?

Rural communities depend on volunteers who drop everything and show up with an ambulance or fire truck or to rescue the injured party clinging to a rock in the middle of a rapid during a thunderstorm. But our neighbors seldom know how much having a fire station within a few miles saves them on their homeowners insurance, let alone the cost of losing a volunteer service altogether. And while they appreciate the people who serve, they often balk at paying the tab. I kid you not, there are people who complain about how it will affect their water bill when a fire department opens a hydrant for training.

Some volunteer fire and EMS services use up their people conducting raffles and a host of other fundraising activities to come up with the money for equipment like portable radios. I haven't heard of any local government units using pancake breakfasts to fund improvements in their public safety communications systems. But I suppose it could come to that. Or we could just go back to using telephone trees to summon volunteer firefighters. That would save some money, which is good — unless it's your house on fire.

Or here's another idea: We could all try to defer opinions about what our communities can't afford until we've made some effort to learn about the systems and services lives depend on. You can start by calling the neighbor you elected to ask about the needs, challenges and funding for your area's public safety communications system. After that, I'm sure you have a neighbor on the fire department or ambulance squad who would be happy to help you understand how things work in the real world.

And you want to know the best way to thank those volunteers who show up when you need them? Try asking them: What do you need and how can I help?

By the way, the man clinging to a rock in the middle of the rapid was very cold when we got him off the water, and had a back injury as well as other bumps and bruises. We got the ambulance out of the mud so they could transport him to the hospital. We located the missing members of the party, and accounted for all of our people, who were also wet and cold. And after our people got warm and dry, we spent an evening debriefing.

We filed our incident reports, dried out and stowed our river rescue gear so it will be ready next time, and followed up on concerns like the antenna problem. As of now, it looks as if our antenna will be moved to a different cell tower. It can't happen soon enough.

Because next time could be any time. And every time, we depend on our communications system to help make sure everyone gets home safely.

Donna Kallner is a fiber artist from rural northern Wisconsin, and a member of the Wolf River Volunteer Fire Department's Search and Rescue Team.

 

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