Overburdened police and fire radio systems are often failing in many fast-growing area suburbs, but efforts to improve the situation have stalled because of bureaucratic disputes and other radio problems far from Washington.
Public safety broadcasts are bleeding over the state lines of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Delaware, causing conflicts that have yet to be sorted out. Until then, federal communications officials say they cannot dole out the higher and more reliable frequencies sought by some Washington suburbs for police and fire radios.
The result is that in Loudoun, Fauquier, St. Mary's and Charles counties, police and firefighters using outdated equipment sometimes cannot communicate with dispatchers, or each other, in emergencies.
Local officials and at least one U.S. senator, Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), have pressed the Federal Communications Commission to resolve the issues quickly. But FCC officials so far have declined to intervene in the four-year-long disputes.
Emergency officials in Loudoun, the region's fastest-growing county, said their antiquated system is posing an increasing risk as the population and number of emergency calls skyrocket. They have been asking for new frequencies since 1997.
"I told the FCC that if somebody dies because of the radio system, and I'm on 'Nightline' being quizzed about why we weren't able to deal with this issue, I was going to name them personally," said Robert P. Griffin Jr., an assistant Loudoun County administrator. "We've been lucky so far. It's Russian roulette."
Radio systems in some of the booming outer counties are at least 40 years old and work on low-frequency signals that are susceptible to a variety of interference, including the weather. The counties trying to convert to higher frequencies--800 megahertz--all have "dead zones," or areas where emergency radios will not work. The zones shift and grow depending on the weather and can cover large swaths of a county.
Older radio systems with low frequencies and few channels are also overloaded as more people try to use them. The higher-frequency systems, which are equipped with new technology, provide broader access.
Another problem with low frequencies is that they are more susceptible to interference from other radio signals, sometimes from as far away as California and Florida.
"I can hear the units in Pasco, Florida, better than I can hear the units in Ridge, Maryland," said Paul Wible, director of emergency management in St. Mary's County. "It's a serious problem. . . . It happens all the time."
Computers and other electronic equipment can also create background interference in the older radio systems, analysts say.
But FCC officials say they cannot approve new requests for more reliable high-frequency systems in the Washington area as long as the problems with Delaware, Maryland and Pennsylvania police and fire radios persist. Otherwise, they argue, newly issued frequencies could overlap and cause even more interference.
"From our vantage point, the roadblock is not the FCC," said Kathleen O'Brien Ham, who oversees the FCC division in charge of public safety frequencies.
The problem, she said, lies with the regional advisers who are supposed to review the use of public safety frequencies and prevent the kind of interference that is happening across the three state lines. The FCC is "working actively on this issue for a solution," she said, and is "very sensitive to public safety concerns."
It's not just the fast-growing outer ring of counties that is trying to lay claim to higher frequencies. Prince George's and Montgomery counties also want new frequencies so that computers in police cars can send and receive information about warrants and criminal backgrounds. Howard County wants new frequencies because its communications channels are crowded.
On Maryland's Eastern Shore, three counties--Talbot, Caroline and Queen Anne--recently filed a joint application to upgrade to an 800 MHz system.
Some counties have money appropriated for new radio systems and are just waiting for FCC approval of new frequencies. In others, officials said they cannot plan their systems and get funding until they know they'll get the frequencies they want.
While they wait for the FCC, sheriff's deputies in several suburbs said they're buying their own cell phones and hooking them onto their duty belts because they fear being stuck without working radios. But the cell phones do not work in many outlying areas.
"Your communications is your lifeline; without it, you are compromising public safety," Fauquier Sheriff Joseph Higgs Jr. said. "If you have no voice communications, it creates extreme situations of concern. . . . We've had situations where we need rescue and have been unable to get on the radio."
In Loudoun, Maj. John Patton, the sheriff's chief deputy, once found himself confronted with a disorderly person in Sterling. The man, who was high on PCP, fought with Patton, breaking his glasses and giving him a black eye. Patton freed one of his hands to use his radio and call for backup. But his radio was in a dead zone. Finally, a neighbor saw the incident and called 911.
"To me, it's extremely worrisome," Patton said. "I don't want it to have to be the case where somebody has to get killed."