Sussex eyes fix to put first responders on same wavelength with Maryland

Sussex County Emergency Operations Center Director Joe Thomas listens to a question
during his presentation on a needed radio upgrade for county first responders. (Glenn Rolfe/Sussex Post)

GEORGETOWN — Sussex County appears to have a potential $75,000 solution that will put county first responders and those from neighboring Maryland on the same wavelength.

A difference in radio technology has created a communication gap and safety concerns in mutual aid responses that Sussex County Emergency Operations Center Director Joe Thomas can be fixed with a patch.

At issue: Fire and Emergency Medical Services from Wicomico and Worcester counties in Maryland have come on board with a new public safety radio system. It’s Phase 2, which features the latest technology, Mr. Thomas said.

Radios for fire, ambulance and EMS in Delaware operate on older Phase 1 technology.

“What happens is when we key up one of our radios into Maryland on a Phase 2 system we occupy two of their radio frequencies at the same time,” said Mr. Thomas, in a Sept. 18 presentation to county council.” Well, for someone like Wicomico County that only has six radio frequencies on their system and we take up two of them, we have already limited a third of their system. It creates an operational issue.”

The issue centers on the emergency 800 MHz radio system used by emergency responders in Sussex County and Maryland. The 800 MHz system is “owned” by the state of Delaware, but Sussex County works directly with local fire and ambulance companies to maintain their radios and ensure radio towers are operating correctly.

The communication gap stems from a decision that Delaware radios as they have been ordered over the years only have Phase 1 technology.

“They don’t have Phase 2,” Mr. Thomas said. “The Phase 2 radio works seamlessly on our system. They (Maryland responders) don’t have an issue coming into Delaware. It’s only with our Phase 1 radio crossing into Maryland going on their system. Newer technology has created this issue.”

Wicomico and Worcester have contacted Sussex County and said “quite frankly … they are not going to allow our radios to talk on their system. They don’t want to downgrade the capability of their system any further,” Mr. Thomas told county leaders.

This impacts first responders and creates safety issues. “When you have first responders on the scene and can’t talk to one another there can be safety concerns,” said Mr. Thomas, adding the county has been in communication with the state since April.

“I don’t know that there was a delay that was purposeful,” said Sussex County Administrator Todd Lawson. “I think that when you have one state operating under their own program and knowing they are going to make an upgrade they probably told Delaware that they were going to also be affected. But that information really wasn’t used in a way to plan appropriately, so we’ve got this gap of time. Some companies have already switched over, so we are playing catch-up.”

Among the fire and EMS departments this impacts: Seaford, Blades, Laurel, Delmar, Gumboro, Selbyville, Roxana and Bethany Beach as well as Sussex County EMS paramedics.

The solution, Mr. Thomas said, is an upgrade, or a “patch,” which involves a radio flash kit.

Mr. Thomas said the Motorola company is offering the state of Delaware a one-time 65-percent discount to the flash through the end of the year. So, it would be $182 instead of the normal $518 radio upgrade cost.

For 420 radios, an estimated $76,000 would make communicate devices compatible with neighboring Maryland.

Recently, Delaware Emergency Management Agency informed Sussex County that there is grant funding they could reallocate toward this project. The ballpark figure mentioned was $75,000.

The county would pay for that flash kit for radios, which would be installed by county communications division. Sussex County would be reimbursed through the grant.

Most radios have a 15-year shelf life and Delaware’s current radios were purchased within the last five years. Mr. Thomas explained that the state radio system is upgraded roughly every five years. “We are currently in the middle of another upgrade,” Mr. Thomas said.

County councilman Rob Arlett, R-Frankford, said he has received calls with concern regarding this communication issue.

Mr. Thomas’ presentation was informational; council took no action at the Sept. 18 meeting.

The good news, Mr. Lawson said is that “we have a solution and funding to back that solution up. I think come full circle we’ll be in a good place as fast as we can. Certainly, there could have been some improvements in the coordination between the two states. But that didn’t happen.”

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