Dispatchers Across VT Asking: Can You Please Repeat That?

June 1, 2014

in Archive,News

(This story was first published in the March 15, 2014 edition of the Vermont Standard.)

By Katy Savage, Standard Staff

David Brault was the first on scene when a head-on collision left a father and son dead on Route 4 in Bridgewater two years ago.

His cell phone didn’t work, he couldn’t connect to the program on his computer and he couldn’t radio anybody for help. Brault, a deputy sheriff at the Windsor County Sherriff’s Department, got lucky when eventually an officer in nearby Plymouth heard him, but even then, “They could just barely hear me,” Brault said.

Dead spots are a common problem in the state. Sometimes emergency officials can only hear every other word. Sometimes they can’t communicate with each other at all, putting them in a potentially dangerous situation.

“In Vermont, you run into that everyday,” said Roger Marcoux, a member of the Vermont Communications Board, or VCOMM.

Communication was reduced last January by the Federal Communications Commission narrowband mandate, which was done to reduce congestion.

“When people had to change their frequencies, that…reduced signal strength by up to 20 percent,” said Vermont Homeland Security Liaison Mike Manning.

The mandate affected small towns more than metropolitan areas. But even before the change, the steep mountains and valleys of Vermont have made it difficult for officers to talk to each other and rapidly respond to emergency situations.

Woodstock police couldn’t communicate with dispatch on their portable radios at all last August when a pickup truck went through a guardrail and landed in a creek, leaving one person dead on Fletcher Hill Road in South Woodstock.

“Logistically speaking we had difficulties,” Woodstock Police Chief Robbie Blish said.

Until last year, the police had to rely on the fire department frequency, which uses very high frequency as opposed to ultra high frequency. The longer wavelengths get over Vermont’s hills better, but don’t work as well in buildings.

Blish doesn’t doubt that his staff has been put in potentially dangerous situations.

“The terrain can definitely make for some spotty radio communication,” he said.

It’s a problem that the sheriff department has learned to deal with.

Deputy Thomas Battista “(goes) with the flow” in situations where he doesn’t have service, he said.

Battista knows where his dead spots are. If he has to make a traffic stop, he follows the car until he gets service to pull them over and run a background check on his computer, or he has dispatch do it for him.

“I wouldn’t say it’s 100 percent, let’s put it that way,” he said.

Last October Woodstock Police upgraded repeaters on Fletcher Hill Road and Blankey Cottage Lane from 25 watts to 100 watts with Federal Emergency Management Agency grants. Blish expects to install new radios in all the police cruisers by the end of June.

“The effort has paid off,” Blish said. “The radio communication is much better off than it was before in Woodstock.”

VCOMM is trying to get a system where police and fire officials would be able to communicate with each other on a common channel. Vermont would be one of the first states to have such a system, according to Marcoux.

“Maybe we’d be in a much better position to work together in a major incident,” he said.

There is also effort to improve statewide communication by switching to digital repeaters. VCOMM is trying to assess where the holes are.

“We’re ways off, but we’re much better than we were,” Marcoux said.

Until then, communication in some local towns remains “horrendous,” according to Brault.

In Sharon, the Windsor County Sherrif’s Dept. has to contact state police because its dispatcher can’t hear it. It’s the same way in Barnard and on Route 106 between Woodstock and Reading there is “very little” signal, said Brault. Route 4 is spotty in Bridgewater and so is Route 100A.

“We have to go on our own judgment or we have to get a hold of the state police,” Brault said. “If something doesn’t feel right I will do whatever I have to, to get a hold of someone.”

But even when making a simple traffic stop, the police don’t know what they’re getting into.

“If you have no cell phone communication and no communication with the radio, you better hope that everything works out and it works out well,” Brault said.

(This story was first published in the March 15, 2014 edition of the Vermont Standard.)


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