Ore. county fire, EMS, police radios crash for 6 hours
During the outage that lasted from 1 to 7 p.m., responders could hear 911 dispatchers, but dispatchers couldn't hear responders
By Maxine Bernstein
PORTLAND, Ore. — Multnomah County's public safety radio dispatch system failed for about six hours Thursday afternoon, forcing multiple police and fire agencies to find back-up ways of communicating with dispatchers.
The failure began shortly after 1 p.m. and lasted until shortly after 7 p.m., according to public safety officials.
"To be down that long is an exceptional rarity," said Sgt. Mike Unsworth of the Portland Police Bureau.
Emergency dispatchers couldn't hear officers or firefighters on the radio, yet the public safety officers could hear the dispatchers.
Firefighters were told to stay at their stations unless a fire was reported, while patrol officers in Portland paired up two to a car and were told to respond to only high-priority emergency calls.
A malfunction or power surge involving a controller at one radio tower site near Prune Hill in Camas, Wash., forced half of the radio channels to fail, officials said.
"Nothing like this has happened since like the '90s," said Kelly Ball of Portland's Bureau of Technology Services.
"It seemed like forever," said Scott Howes, the city's communication system administrator.
There are 15 radio sites around the metropolitan region that support the county's aging public safety radio system, which is being replaced under a nearly $50 million bond-supported project approved by voters. The move to a new digital-based radio system is about half-way complete, officials said. Motorola signed a contract to begin replacement in 2013, and the system is scheduled to be operational by June 2016.
The Fire Bureau's mobile command and communications unit drove to the top of Mt. Tabor to help with radio relay signals, Fire Chief Erin Janssens said.
Janssens got word of "isolated broken equipment" at one radio tower site in Washington about 1:45 p.m.
Portland Police Assistant Chief Bob Day estimated that city police were without any radio communication between officers and dispatchers for about 30 minutes. During that time, sergeants sought to communicate with officers by cell phone, he said.
Portland police moved to the new radio digital system, which wasn't fully ready for use but worked as a back-up on Thursday, Unsworth said.
As a result, Day estimated that non-priority calls, such as burglaries, thefts, vandalism or parking disputes, sat for three to four hours without a police response.
"The risk with the new system is we're not 100 percent sure of its capacity, so we wanted to limit the amount of talking on the radio," Day said.
"Everybody was affected," said Fairview Police Chief Ken Johnson. Fairview police were forced to rely on their own internal police radios in their cars, he said. That doesn't help, however, when the officers leave their cars and are out on calls.
"I know we've been warned the radio system has been on the brink," Johnson said. "That's why it's being replaced."
Laura Wolfe of Portland's Bureau of Emergency Communications said dispatchers had to work around the failure and communicate with emergency responders on different, lesser-used radio channels or talk groups normally reserved for critical or emergency responses and through the mobile computers in police cars. Incoming 911 calls were not affected.
Multnomah County sheriff's deputies relied on a backup radio channel. The sheriff's office had two patrol vehicles work together in geographical zones, taking priority calls and handling non-priority calls over the phone, sheriff's Lt. Steve Alexander said.
Should such a radio failure occur in the future, Portland police are considering identifying certain staging locations where sergeants and officers can gather and find ways to respond faster to some of the non-priority calls.
During shootings or major tactical squad operations, it's not unusual for police to take only priority calls, Day said. But for those calls to wait three to four hours is significant and concerning, he said.
Katie Shriver, policy director for Portland Commissioner Steve Novick, who oversees the emergency dispatch system, said a full review of what occurred will be done.
"It's frustrating when things like this happen, but we do have backup procedures," she said.
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