New frequencies assure response

Island County fire departments will soon take a step toward ensuring they receive the message that there’s an emergency.

After waiting two years for the Federal Communication Commission to approve its request for new communication frequencies, last week I-COM received the go-ahead to create one “tone-out” frequency and multiple tactical frequencies.

Previously all of Island County and the City of Oak Harbor’s fire communications congested one frequency channel. Island County shares this frequency with Snohomish, Skagit and Whatcom counties. When a frequency becomes crowded it becomes an issue that must be addressed, because firefighters and other emergency responders may not hear the tone-out.

“North Whidbey shares its tone-out frequency with neighboring jurisdictions, and North Whidbey and our neighbors are growing, so there’s more traffic on the air,” I-COM Director Tom Shaughnessy said.

North Whidbey Fire District 2 North End Chief, Mick Lamar, voiced concern at the commissioners’ meeting in February when he said, “For the past six to eight weeks there have been cases when some of our firefighters have either not received the tone-out pages at all, or the messages were garbled.”

Tone-outs are especially vital to the four all-volunteer Island County fire districts. Tone-outs are the pages that alert emergency personnel of the emergency calls, and they are followed by initial information about where the fire or other emergency incident is located and what the crews should expect when they arrive. Each pager is programmed to respond to a certain tone-out frequency. When the airwaves are crowded, stronger frequency signals overpower or otherwise prevent others from being heard.

Thus far, the tone-out complications haven’t placed lives in jeopardy. Shaughnessy attributes this to all parties involved “being on top of things.” All parties involved — I-COM, the four Island County fire departments, and the City of Oak Harbor Fire Department — want to ensure what they consider a “frustration” right now doesn’t turn into a problem that could delay the alert system for medical and fire personnel who already work in an environment where every second counts.

“Enough people have been receiving the pages to cover the calls, so there hasn’t been a problem that way. Sometimes they’ve had to contact I-COM to repeat the address or other information, but they’ve been able to do that while already enroute to the call,” Shaughnessy said.

The paperwork snag that slowed the approval process of the frequencies to two years was caused by the county’s proximity to Canada. The FCC not only had to weigh the frequency needs and concerns of neighboring jurisdictions within Washington state, but also had to negotiate with Canada to ensure the new frequencies chosen wouldn’t interfere with those currently in use by the country to the north.

The frequency expansion project, set to be completed by June 1, 2002, will occur through a mix of adjustments to current communications equipment used by I-COM, Island County fire districts and City of Oak Harbor Fire.

Newly positioned equipment such as the Race Road tower, which was brought online in February, has already begun to be configured for a frequency change, and the process can be finalized now that the frequency selections have gained FCC approval. Existing pagers will be reprogrammed. The tactical frequencies will come about from the shuffling of individual district frequencies to county-wide use, the expanded use of a frequency that was previously used exclusively for Camano Island, and the addition of a FCC-approved frequency.

Day Wireless has been hired to ensure the 100 pagers and various radios of North Whidbey Fire District 2 will be reprogrammed to respond accordingly to the new frequencies. The district’s newest pagers’ ability to be easily reprogrammed will lower the estimated $7,000 price tag for District 2 to reprogram its pagers. The estimate was made by Day Wireless before the purchase of the newer models.

The revamping cost to individual Island County fire districts and the City of Oak Harbor will depend on the number of pagers to be reprogrammed and also the current status and age of the pagers used by those districts.

For example, older model pagers require a crystal that must be replaced in order to be reprogrammed, which can run as much as $80 per pager. The newer pagers and radios have technology that allows a simple reprogram and a charge as little as $5.

In addition to the pager reprogramming that will occur, I-COM has been working for two years (since the request was sent to the FCC) to configure and position 13 transmitters and receivers throughout the county at locations such as Oak Harbor, Cultus Bay, Race Road and on Camano Island.

State and county 911 taxes collected on phone bills will cover the cost to I-COM for the updates and changes to the transmitting equipment. A tax of 50 cents per household for 911 operations is collected monthly by the county. The state collects 20 cents per household monthly, which is pooled and then used by counties in need.

This frequency expansion is the first for the fire response side of I-COM since the Communications Center became operational March 31, 1997.

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