December 6, 2012 | Volume 42, No. 49

Broken siren slows firefighter response

A breakdown of the town siren Oct. 14 and the simultaneous loss of a broadcast, tonal pulse – called a “tone-out” – have cost some firefighters time responding to calls.

Emergency responders have been listening more closely to radio and pagers since the malfunction, but the problem grew more serious last weekend when the ambulance tone-out – that had been used on an interim basis for both fire and ambulance calls – also stopped working.

Dispatchers were limited to making radio announcements of emergencies that responders said can be difficult to hear.

“I was slow in responding to the late night Thursday call because I was awakened by voices on the pager, rather than the tone-out. I was one of only seven members that responded. That is the lowest turnout I have seen since I have been on the department,” firefighter Vince Hansen wrote in an email to borough manager Mark Earnest Sunday.

“Several members have stated that they did not notice or hear the callouts without the tone or the siren,” Hansen wrote.

Police chief Gary Lowe, whose department oversees dispatch and radio responsibilities, said Wednesday he was hoping to get the radio repairman here within the next week. The repairman was supposed to have been here before Thanksgiving, but the company’s equipment wasn’t working, Lowe said.

Hansen described the matter as urgent.

“An immediate fix to fire department call-outs and the siren is necessary. Without immediate repair, lives and property are at risk,” Hansen said in his email.

Thom Andriesen, a 24-year member of the ambulance crew, described the tone-out as critical for alerting him.

“I don’t wake up to talk on the radio. When that tone goes off, I hit the ceiling. If it’s talk, it’s just background noise,” Andriesen said.

Voices coming over pagers carried by emergency responders can easily be drowned out at places like sporting events, Andriesen said. “The tone cuts through the background noise, or you hear the siren.”

The problem stems from an aging, faulty radio system used by dispatchers. It’s the same one they use to communicate with police officers, state road crews and state troopers.

“It’s the emergency communication system for the whole borough. It’s all linked together,” said Scott Bradford, chief of the Haines Volunteer Fire Department.

This week, police dispatchers were using hand-held radios to communicate with patrolmen and were routing fire and ambulance calls through the fire department’s 100-watt “mini command” base station upstairs through wires that have been run through the floor.

Emergency responders say in the absence of a fix to the problem, they’ve asked dispatchers to make some kind of loud noise on the radio that might wake them in the middle of the night.

“I’ve asked them to use some kind of horn or whistle, something with a high-pitched sound. They’re supposed to be looking into it,” said Bradford, who described the radio as outdated. “It’s an old DOS system. It almost goes back to the hammer and chisel age.”

The Haines Borough recently received an $80,000 grant to overhaul the dispatch system for receiving 911 calls, but that won’t cover the radio, which is a separate component.

Police chief Lowe was hopeful that upcoming 911 improvements, including a new console, would help resolve the issue. “The console will improve the radio,” he said. “Radios work through the console. Right now I don’t know the radio is as much the problem as the console.”

Police have a radio maintenance budget of about $3,000 for the work, Lowe said. The borough has received an initial repair estimate of $2,200.

A meeting was held Tuesday with fire, police, ambulance and dispatch representatives. “These are the kind of problems we can’t let sit,” borough facilities director Carlos Jimenez said Monday. He said the borough was looking into the cost of replacing the radio system.

Firefighters this week said they were using different techniques to pick up on calls, which recently have been radio announcements without any other cues.

“Without the tone, you have to turn up your senses. You have to try to distinguish the difference in the radio traffic, and what you need to attend to,” said assistant fire chief Roc Ahrens.

One veteran firefighter who asked not to be identified said he has slept through calls for lack of the siren and tone-out, but others say they’re adapting.

“Once I found out the siren wasn’t working, I’ve become more attentive to it,” said Greg Palmieri. “I just pay attention to everything (on the radio) more because of that.”

Palmieri said he doubts the loss of the beacons have affected the department’s response time. “The engine rolls pretty fast. I think everybody’s getting pretty sensitive to it,” he said.

Ahrens said he was alerted to an early-morning chimney fire by his wife, who awoke to the radio announcement before he did.

The siren that sits atop the firehall works fine, but its electronic trigger is broken, fire officials say. That’s a concern for ambulance crew member Andriesen, who said the siren also is used in the event of a natural disaster.

“It’s a signal to the community that something bad’s going down. It’s important,” Andriesen said.

The siren and tone-out are critical to getting all hands to an emergency, such as an active, working fire, he said. “Fortunately, we haven’t had anything too major, but that’ll be coming at some point.”