In the wake of the shooting incident at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 16, issues with the Cumberland County radio system, which Carlisle borough recently voted to transfer to, and is manufactured by the same company as the ones used in Washington, have started to come to light.
Greg Russell, the president of the union that represents civilian Navy firefighters in the Washington, D.C., region, said during the shooting incident faulty radios hindered communication.
Former Navy reservist Aaron Alexis killed 12 people at the Navy Yard before being slain in a police shootout.
Russell said the problems prevented firefighters inside Building 197, where the shooting occurred, from communicating with each other and were so bad that the department had to send one of its officials outside the building to transmit messages and commands.
The portable radios used in that incident were Harris Corp. M/A-COM P7100 and P7200’s, he said, which are manufactured by the same company that Cumberland County uses for their radio communications.
While they are the same manufacturer, Cumberland County Public Information Officer, Megan Silverstrim, said comparing the two systems would be like comparing apples and oranges.
While the system in Washington is a P25 operating systems, Cumberland County uses an Open Sky System, she said. Both are manufactured by the Harris Corp. but operate on different wavelengths. The counties Open Sky system operates on 800 megahertz, which allows interoperability between agencies, which Silverstrim said would be an issue with the P25 system, which operates on 380 megahertz.
“To compare the two, yeah it is the same company, but it is like having AT&T as your cellphone provider and the difference between using an iPhone versus an Android,” she said.
The systems may be different, but the portable radios themselves are the same, both officials confirmed. Currently the county uses the P7200 models, amongst others, for several agencies. With the transition from the Carlisle dispatch center to county services, she said Carlisle Police would most likely be buying a newer model radio manufactured by the same company.
“It is hard for us to compare the two systems and how that would impact us here since it is a completely different system. The portable may be the same, but the portable isn’t what is going to cause a radio failure, it is going to be the system. When you can’t get cellphone service, it is not your cellphone’s fault, it is your carrier’s fault. The portable itself can be used on various systems ... We do use the same portable but we operate on a completely different system,” she said.
Russell said he would not recommend the system for any responders, including fire and police, because the issues with communication, issues with the mayday or distress buttons and failures with batteries, which were identified since they began using the radios in 2007.
“What we identified many years ago, you would be in a building and not be able to transmit to the outside of the building, or you could be on two sides of the same building, on the exterior and sometimes you could not transmit or receive from party to party,” he said. “I’ve been asked by several agencies in the last two weeks if I would recommend this radio and I would not recommend these for a dog catcher. Anybody in public safety I would urge them to stay away from it. If law enforcement is using it, a police officer does not have time to go back and forth to an exterior door, they aren’t there in the same conditions the firefighters are. They are combatants a lot of times. And when you are in a building and you are getting the snot whipped out of you and you can’t get a tower, you can’t get a signal, the game is over, you’ve already lost.”
He said the potential loss of life is high with the system.
The firefighters were ultimately able to use the radio system of local first responders, Russell said. He said the problems caused unnecessary delays, though it was not clear what effect those delays may have had.
Silverstrim said the county has been using the system for fire and EMS agencies for years with no major issues.
“We have had major incidents in the county, not as catastrophic as the shooting at the Navy Yard, but we have had incidents where there have been lots of radio communication and it has performed very well. A radio system does not exist that is 100 percent,” she said. “We are always looking to make sure that our radio system is secure. We have all sorts of redundancies in place to make sure that there aren’t any catastrophic failures.”
The FBI is still investigating why Alexis, a 34-year-old former Navy reservist and an information technology contractor with a history of mental health problems, entered the building Monday morning with a bag, emerged from a bathroom with a sawed-off shotgun and opened fire on workers. The shooting has prompted reviews into military security and employee screening programs.
Carlisle Police did not return a call for comment on the new proposed radio system for the agency.