A story in Thursday's editions stated that a spokeswoman for the Federal Communications Commission said the FCC is leaning toward accommodating fire and police services in assigning unused radio channels. The story should have stated that she said public comments received by the FCC are leaning in that direction. The commission has made no decision on the issue.
Washington area public safety radio systems are dangerously overloaded, officials say, because of a dramatic increase in emergency calls to police and fire departments.
"I couldn't point to a specific instance where someone's life was lost," said Prince George's County Fire Chief M.H. Estepp. "But we are operating on the border each day."
Ambulance dispatchers, firefighters and police officers have only a limited number of radio channels that they can use to respond to heart attacks, hazardous waste spills or traffic accidents. They say they desperately need more.
Estepp, speaking before the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments yesterday, urged the board to lobby the Federal Communications Commission for more public safety channels. During disasters, such as the 1982 Air Florida plane crash, the need for new frequencies -- and ones on which all the jurisdictions could communicate with each other -- is critical, the fire chief said.
The FCC, which regulates the airwaves, is expected to decide this summer whether public safety departments or private satellite mobile radio services will be allocated some of the last unused channels, called 821-825 MegaHertz and 866-870 MegaHertz. If the Washington area police and fire departments are allotted these channels, they can more quickly assist each other in large-scale tragedies. Currently they are on different frequencies and must be patched through by a third party.
"It would put us all on the same wavelength," said Alexandria Police Chief Charles T. Strobel. "The airwaves are very much in demand and it would make it a whole lot smoother." Strobel said Alexandria police, who have only four channels, received 12,000 more calls last year than the previous year.
In Prince George's County, police and fire departments fielded 413,000 calls in 1985, and had only 14 channels on which to respond.
"The radio traffic is such that we have to put the dispatchers on hold," said Ken Cox, vice president of the International Association of Firefighters Union's Local 36 in the District. "The problem is worse for the ambulances."
"Both sides public safety departments and satellite companies have lobbied very hard" for the MegaHertz channels, said FCC spokeswoman Sally Mott Lawrence. While the FCC seems to be leaning toward accommodating fire and police needs, Lawrence said, the agency is in a bind because the private satellite radio services also perform some public services functions. Canada, apparently in need of these private services, has also urged the FCC to grant the channels to the private companies, she said.
Besides adopting a resolution urging the FCC to allocate the additional radio frequencies for local emergency use, the COG board approved a resolution asking Congress to ensure that a $25 million fire prevention program deleted in the proposed fiscal 1987 federal budget be restored.
The loss of lives due to fire each year is equivalent to a monthly collision of two fully loaded Boeing 747s, Estepp said. Along with about 6,000 lives lost annually, the monetary loss due to fire and arson is in the tens of billions, he said.