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After radio breakdown, Montgomery officials fault Elrich for lack of urgency

Montgomery County Executive Marc Elrich (D) was sharply criticzed by council members during a hearing Tuesday. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

Several Montgomery County Council members sharply criticized County Executive Marc Elrich on Tuesday for what they described as his lack of urgency in fixing the county’s aging public safety radio system, which had a 14-hour outage last month.

The decision by Elrich (D) to look for new locations for two communications towers planned in communities that do not want them would push back the completion date for the new system, decrease its effectiveness and come with an unknown price tag, according to a report by council staff.

In an emotional committee hearing Tuesday, some council members said it is imperative that Elrich move quickly to fix the system, citing concerns about what could happen if the 911 call center cannot use the radio to communicate with first responders, especially in an era in which concerns about mass shootings are ever-present.

“What is happening here is totally unacceptable, and it is absolutely outrageous,” said council member Hans Riemer (D-At Large). “I think the direction here is coming from the top, and it is political.”

Elrich’s spokesman, Barry Hudson, did not comment Tuesday. But Sonny Segal, chief information officer in the Department of Technology Services, said at the meeting the administration is balancing the concerns of residents with those of first responders who say Elrich should not delay the construction of two of the 22 towers that were planned in the new system.

One of those towers would have been at the Intercounty Connector and Georgia Avenue in Olney that the county would have shared with the state, and another was planned for Bretton Woods.

Over Mother’s Day weekend, calls stopped going through on the county’s nearly 20-year-old radio system, which is used by police, fire, the sheriff’s department and others in the county. There were no major emergencies that weekend, but council members pointed out that on another weekend, the outcome might have been different.

Jeffrey Buddle, president of the county firefighters’ union, wrote a letter to Elrich on Tuesday describing the condition of the system as “inconceivable” given the wealth of the Washington suburb and the size of its operating budget.

“The current public safety communications system is in critical condition and is at risk of catastrophic failure at any time,” Buddle wrote. “Repairs that are tantamount to placing a Band-Aid on a gushing wound are no longer something that the County can afford to accept.”

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The council has allocated more than $45 million to replace the current 11-tower system with the upgraded 22-tower system. That project had been delayed for years, for a variety of reasons, under the administration of Elrich’s predecessor, Isiah Leggett (D). The “end-of-life” date for the current system, which has more than 7,200 users, was 2009, the council report said.

Last month, Andrew Kleine, chief administrative officer for the county, said the overhaul of the system remains on schedule, even without the two towers.

But the council’s report said Elrich’s decision to consider relocating two towers could again push completion of the project from fall 2020 to fall 2021 or 2022, and come with a price tag yet to be determined.

It is also unlikely that a system with only 20 towers would meet the “95-95” standard — meaning that 95 percent of the county would be covered by the radio system, 95 percent of the time — that the county has determined the 22-tower system would meet, the report found.

Neighbors in the Olney and Bretton Woods areas say they were not properly informed about the project and have concerns about possible negative health effects.

State Sen. Benjamin F. Kramer (D-Montgomery), who had lobbied to stop the Olney tower and who attended the committee hearing Tuesday, praised Elrich for his “courage” in stopping a project that he said residents had been left in the dark about for years.

“This is not about aesthetics,” Kramer said. “This is about process, and there was no process whatsoever.”

Council members acknowledged Tuesday during the joint hearing of the government operations and public safety committees that there had been poor communication about the plan in past years. But they said the focus should be on what to do next.

“It is what it is,” council President Nancy Navarro (D-District 4) said. “This is a new administration now, and it has to take ownership for how it’s going to move this forward.”

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