Crowded Radio Frequencies Complicate Emergency Communications

Dec 11, 2015

Vermont’s emergency responders rely on radio communications to talk to each other in critical situations. But clear space on the airwaves is not available in all parts of the state. For example, radio transmissions coming through at the Capital West dispatch center, located at the Montpelier Police Department, include other Vermont emergency dispatchers as well as a French-speaking Canadian taxi company.

Capital West dispatches 23 fire, ambulance and EMS services throughout central Vermont on the same frequency as the taxi company. They also share the radio frequency with the Barre City Police Department, which dispatches several more agencies.

Scott Bagg is chairman of the Capital Fire and Mutual Aid System Communications Committee, which runs Capital West dispatching. He says all that radio traffic can be confusing.

"So it can be very complicated when you’re trying to dispatch on a fire emergency, and here comes the Canadian taxi company trying to talk and operate their business and it overrides our system," says Bagg.

As frustrating as all this radio traffic may be, the situation worsened earlier this year when communications from fire departments in Grand Isle County started coming in loud and clear over that same radio frequency. Bagg explains a recent equipment upgrade for the Grand Isle system led to more interference for dispatchers and responders in central Vermont.

"They actually attempted to get off our frequency, and they have recently realized that their system did not work for what they needed," says Bagg. "They came back on our frequency and their transmissions were overriding our transmissions and became an operating problem."

Fred Cummings is the Dispatch Supervisor in Montpelier. He says too much radio traffic can lead to dispatchers missing transmissions. And that, he says, can have life-or-death consequences.

"If the transmission that you miss is critical, it could mean somebody is hurt or killed." - Dispatch Supervisor Fred Cummings

"If the transmission that you miss is critical, it could mean somebody is hurt or killed," says Cummings. "So that’s the concern we have with everybody being able to talk on the same channel at the same time."

Communications Committee Chairman Scott Bagg says there haven’t been any dire consequences yet, but he’s afraid it’s only a matter of time. And that’s why Capital West is looking to switch to a new system on a new frequency. But the switch will take time and money.

Capital Fire and Mutual Aid System Communications Committee Chairman Scott Bagg is working to secure a clear communications channel for Capital West dispatchers.
Credit Amy Kolb Noyes / VPR

Bagg says the Federal Communications Commission needs to approve the change. And because it’s close to the international border, Capital West will also need permission from the Canadian government, potentially a year-long process. And if they change frequencies, he says it's also a logical time to upgrade the Capital West communications system that's been patched together over several decades.

"We want a system that is going to be able to transmit and reach all of our towers simultaneously, at the same time," says Bagg. "And we want our responders, no matter if they are in Cabot or Roxbury, to hear each other and be able to talk to each other through a unified, dedicated system. And it will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace."

Bagg says Capital Fire and Mutual Aid will apply for a Department of Homeland Security grant, and other grants, to help pay for a new system. He says he doesn’t think it’s viable to ask the 17 towns whose departments use Capital West dispatch to pay for the upgrade.

"It would be extremely difficult for all the towns to bear the weight of such an upgrade." - Communications Committee Chairperson Scott Bagg

"It would be extremely difficult for all the towns to bear the weight of such an upgrade," says Bagg. "I would almost say impossible."

In the meantime, Capital West is making due with a crowded radio channel and a complicated system to reach emergency responders from Cabot to Fayston and Roxbury to Walden. And, Bagg says, it’s a problem that’s likely to come up in other parts of the state as well.

"As more and more technology and radios come available, more and more people are trying to talk on the same frequency," he says. "We’ve run into this problem and I’m sure that other agencies are going to run into this same problem."

Meanwhile, Grand Isle County fire officials have been in touch with Capital West in Montpelier and say they are making an effort to restrict radio use to essential communications, at least until a more permanent solution can be found.