For the second time in two months, Flagler County’s emergency communications system had a problem on Monday evening, though whether it was a serious problem or a glitch in one tower depends on who’s interpreting the issue.
The problem occurred on the communications tower on John Anderson Highway when a repeater issue caused communications on the sheriff’s channels to be garbled, requiring deputies to switch to a different, less efficient, single channel.
“We definitely had issues yesterday, there’s no question,” Jim Troiano, the sheriff’s chief spokesman, said, describing the problem as a “partial radio failure” that lasted “a couple of hours.” Initially Troiano had said that cops had to share a channel with firefighters, but subsequently said that that was not the case.
County firefighters did not experience any issues, nor did Palm Coast firefighters or Palm Coast employees, who also use the system, officials in the two agencies reported. Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon told the city council Tuesday morning that “I got a report that our radio system went down for a couple of hours again yesterday.” But that was quite an exaggeration—of scope and time—that Landon did not parse, instead pivoting the matter to its political context as he added: “I can’t stress to you the importance of this issue for emergency response.”
The county’s emergency communications system—otherwise known as the 800 Mhz radio communication system that all cops, firefighters, 911, and county and Palm Coast utility and public works employees depend on, often for theirs and residents’ safety–has become politically controversial, pitting the county administration on one side and the sheriff’s office and Palm Coast government on the other. Palm Coast and the sheriff are unhappy with what they perceive as the county’s too-slow planning to modernize the system. The county says its plan is in place, but won’t be carried out on the city’s or the sheriff’s timetable, but rather on the county’s.
So any issue with the system, big or small, will tend to be interpreted through the prism of that dissatisfaction, with the city and the sheriff seeing glitches as proof that the system needs upgrading now, and the county claiming that whatever glitches are occurring should be put in perspective and not blown out of proportion. It hasn’t helped that the county’s computer-backup system that serves the sheriff’s dispatching and records operations failed seriously last fall, undermining the credibility of the county’s IT capabilities. That system had nothing at all to do with the emergency radio system, but the failure for a time became a rhetorical weapon the city and the sheriff’s office wielded against the county’s reliability.
The two radio-tower problems of the last two months indisputably had to do with the emergency communications system.
During a heavy storm the afternoon of Feb. 4—ironically, as Palm Coast City Manager Jim Landon, Sheriff Jim Manfre and County Administrator Craig Coffey had been meeting with others to discuss the emergency communications system, though Coffey had just left when the lights flickered—a power failure led to a system failure at one of the county’s communication towers, where the backup generator did not kick on as it should have. Essentially, the 911 dispatch center lost the ability to talk to cops and firefighters in the field for 15 minutes, while or firefighters cops could not talk to each other, either, a potentially dangerous situation. The problem was caused by worn out parts on the back-up generator that was to kick in when power failed during the storm.
A serious problem or a mere glitch, depending on whom you ask.
Though the serious failure lasted only 15 minutes, normal emergency communications were hampered for several hours that afternoon and into evening as cops had to abandon their encrypted channel and communicate through the more public firefighters’ channel. (That’s not in and of itself an issue: innumerable law enforcement departments across the country use public channels, as did the sheriff’s office locally, until then-Sheriff Don Fleming decided to veil such communications from the public.)
Monday’s failure was less serious. But that it was a failure is also unquestionable, even by the county’s—and the system vendor’s—accounts. And its cause has not been determined, so for now it could happen again.
“Last night at approximately 17:00 hours [5 p.m.] the Flagler Beach tower site experienced a GPS timing slip,” Todd Reed, a regional service manager with Communications International, emailed Stephen Garten, the county’s new emergency services manager. “This caused radios in areas that were in overlapping coverage areas between the Flagler Beach tower site and other transmit tower sites to occasionally experience garbled audio and / or ‘CC scan’, a condition where the radio is searching for a control channel. This event was not a ‘system down’ event, but rather a timing event at a single location that affected radio users that were in areas that had overlapping coverage from the Flagler Beach site and other tower sites. The on-call Communications International Radio System Technician was contacted at approximately17:09, responded and initiated action to resolve the symptoms of the timing slip at the Flagler Beach tower site. At approximately 18:00 hours the symptoms were resolved. This event affected users in overlap areas for approximately 1 hour. We are investigating the root cause of the timing slip with the intention of preventing it from occurring in the future.”
Garten forwarded the email to the sheriff’s office and all other heads of local public safety agencies at 8:36 p.m. “All future correspondence with this vendor will be disseminated appropriately through the Emergency Management Division, in order to keep you thoroughly informed on information as we receive it regarding Flagler County’s towers and equipment,” Garten wrote. “I am putting together an After Action Report on the EM side and would like to get input from the Sheriff and Dispatch side as well. If needed, please forward this information to any supervisors or staff that you feel require it.”
Well before Garten disseminated the email to public safety agencies, Coffey, the county manager, wrote the five county commissioners of the issue in a transparent attempt to control the story. The system “remained up and functional throughout,” he wrote, summarizing the issue and including Rered’s email.
“Normally,” Coffey continued, “I would not advise you of such a minor event but wanted to keep you informed in case some seek to make hay out of this issue. This was not related to not having a system upgrade, lack of maintenance, and otherwise a lunar or seismic event. Although the 800 Mhz system is very reliable, you still have highly technical radio equipment where the slightest deviations can create small and large system problems. Our vendor promptly responded per our agreement and adjusted the signal timing at the tower to quickly correct the problem.”
Coincidentally, the emergency radio system was part of a wide-ranging discussion at the Palm Coast City Council Tuesday morning during the council’s goal-setting session. That’s what prompted Landon to briefly to say that the system “went down… again” the previous day.
The $10 million system is 16 years old. It’s the county’s responsibility to buy and manager. Managing the system costs several hundred thousand dollars a year. No city pays for that. The manufacturer will stop manufacturing parts for it in 2017, but the county doesn’t plan to replace the system until 2020 or 2021, as the debt for the current system won’t be paid until then. The county has said repeatedly that it has a pledge from its contractor to provide full service of the system until then, a pledge Palm Coast Mayor Jon Netts acknowledged Tuesday. “To the county’s credit, they claim that their provider has the resources to fill that gap from 2017 to 2020 or 2021,” Netts said.
But the city has been pressuring the county to move up its timetable, and in the meanwhile to meet with the city to discuss its plans in more details. The county says it’s been meeting with city officials all along (as that February meeting indicates), only not on the city’s terms.
Tuesday, City Council member Heidi Shipley raised a question: “Even if it is a county issue and the county doesn’t do it, and it’s still an issue, is there money that we could do it?” She was asking if Palm Coast could run its own emergency communications system, as it did until 2003, when it decided to join the county. Landon had previously intimated that the city might go that route—according to people at that February meeting—but he subsequently and decisively retreated from any such suggestion.
He did so again Tuesday. “Certain parts that make no sense for us to do, our own dispatch, that would not work, it makes no sense,” Landon said. “As far as starting our own network of 800 mhz like we had at one time, once again, we could go and spend a lot of money on that, but you’re really talking duplication. This one is one that we really have to work with Flagler County to make our current program more reliable and up to date, in my opinion.”
The city has two priorities regarding the emergency communications system: figuring out whether it must replace all of its employees’ radios when the new system kicks in (radio costs, which are expensive, are the only financial responsibility of individual agencies that depend on the 800 Mhz system). And figuring out how many new communication towers will be necessary in Palm Coast, so it can plan on where to place them. The county has provided clarity on neither question, though the city has been stashing large sums for the radio replacements, making that issue almost moot.
The tower-placement issue is more difficult, because it grazes political horizons.
“We were very lucky with the tower we’re putting in by Water Treatment Plant No. 1,” Netts said, referring to the recent location of a 150-foot tower near the main branch of the public library, along Palm Coast Parkway. “There was not a lot of community pushback.” But the county has experienced pushback from proposed towers at Cody’s Corner and on John Anderson Highway, Netts said, suggesting that the city might, too, if the needed towers are taller, or more numerous. “If there needs to be towers put in Palm Coast—where, how tall and how many, and I’d like to start the planning for it now,” Netts said. “That’s a decision that takes some time and some studies. I don’t know what I can do, what we can do to have the county bring us into the fold in this discussion. It’s an important issue for us.”
None of the council members appeared either aware or concerned about the issue at the John Anderson Highway tower the previous evening.