Interference garbles fire district's calls
June 25, 2008 · Updated 1:57 PM
"Where's the fire?For the past four years, this is the question more and more South Whidbey firefighters have been asking.Radio interference from 911 dispatch centers in nearby counties regularly cancel out pages from Island County's ICOM center, delaying emergency responses to automobile accidents, fires, and medical crisis by several minutes in some cases.The interference is a public safety risk, said Fire District 3 Chief Don Smith. It's a problem his district and ICOM need to solve soon by getting a new dispatch channel, taking turns on the air with competing signals, or by taking the more expensive route of buying new pagers for FD 3's 100-plus volunteers.If the dispatch centers could coordinate themselves, we could hold off for a while, Smith said Monday. The problem is one of radio frequencies. FD 3 personnel carry voice pagers, through which ICOM calls for 911 responses. The frequency used by the fire district and the dispatch center is the same one two Snohomish County 911 call centers and another center in Skagit County use to call their firefighters and paramedics.Smith said pages from those other counties are currently being transmitted over the top of FD 3 calls. This is occurring more often now than in past years due to increasing emergency calls in both counties. Smith said it is time the dispatch centers start listening to each other's transmissions and begin to take turns on the air.The district has been patient with the problem. FD 3 Battalion Chief Darin Reid said volunteers have been waiting to acquire new frequencies from the Federal Communications Commission as a way to avoid interference. That wait is now three years old and could stretch out for another year or two. That is too long, Reid said.It's time to get it fixed, he said.There are a number of ways to do the fixing, but the method requires an agreement between ICOM and FD3. Tom Shaughnessy, ICOM's interim director, said Monday that he believes a temporary solution is needed while the two agencies wait for approval on new frequencies.This always takes years, unfortunately, he said.Short-term fixes could include using FD 3's tactical radio frequency as a paging channel, using the same frequency used by Camano Island emergency services, or by sending out pages on alpha-numeric display-type pagers.ICOM is more than willing to do what it needs to, Shaughnessy said.However, one thing ICOM probably will not do in the future is monitor radio traffic for the interference FD 3 is experiencing. Shaughnessy said he has a radio in his office that picks up the interference, but dispatchers in the 911 call center do not have the same monitoring ability. Shaughnessy said dispatchers already have enough radio traffic to listen to between the county's three police departments, sheriff's office, and four fire protection districts.Smith said he hopes to talk the issue over with Shaughnessy soon. He said he would prefer to avoid spending more taxpayer money on new pagers or other equipment. For the price the district pays for ICOM's services - about $26,000 this year - he said the system should work. Fire districts on Central and North Whidbey do not experience as much interference as FD 3, Smith said, because they are not within the paging range of mainland dispatching centers. "