Emergency Radio System Needs Urgent Overhaul

With more users than the system can support, it is time to replace the emergency communications system in East Hampton Town, officials said. Durell Godfrey

The emergency communications system in East Hampton Town — used by police along with all of the fire departments and ambulance companies, as well as by town bus drivers, Highway Department workers, parks and recreation staff, and so on — “has reached what’s called end of life,” East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo told the town board on Tuesday, and needs “a major overhaul.”

The existing radio system, with four channels for talking and one for control, was designed to accommodate a total of 250 users; at last count, 10 years ago, the number of users had risen to 700.

The overload, with too many people attempting to communicate over radios at one time, resulted in 500 incidents last year when someone attempted to get on the system but could not, said Ed Schnell, an East Hampton High School graduate who was hired as the town’s communications director late last year.

There were 372 system-overload incidents, or “busies,” between Memorial Day and Labor Day, he said, and, during the recent catastrophic fire on Sag Harbor’s Main Street, firefighters and emergency responders from a host of different departments tried to communicate over their radios, and could not, 143 times.

The Federal Communications Commission recommends a maximum of 70 users per available radio channel, said Mr. Schnell; the town, with an estimated 900 system users at present, should have a radio system with at least 10 channels.

In addition to all the local entities using the system, emergency responders from departments all the way to Riverhead can also access the system as necessary, to respond to mutual aid calls, for instance. While the remainder of Suffolk County primarily uses a county communications system, said Mr. Schell, users throughout the county can also access East Hampton’s radio channels.

Mr. Schell and Chief Sarlo have been researching the communications issue for some time, and are awaiting a proposal from the Motorola company, which would provide the equipment for a seven-channel system. 

Communications-system infrastructure equipment generally reaches obsolescence after 20 years, Mr. Schnell said, and other types of equipment, such as handheld radios or pagers, typically have a 10-year lifespan. Those lifespans have been exhausted. “It’s a total replacement,” he told the board.

“There’s clearly going to have to be a major investment,” Supervisor Larry Cantwell said. “As each month goes by, it becomes more and more critical.” However, he said, because of the coordination needed between the town, the Villages of East Hampton and Sag Harbor, and the fire districts that use the system, a “realistic timeframe” could see a changeover beginning in 2018.

The town’s capital budget calls for a total of $5 million in spending for the system during 2018 and 2019.

The construction in recent years of new communications equipment towers, such as those behind the Amagansett and Springs Fire Departments, addressed geographic issues of radio coverage, but did not provide additional radio channels for the growing number of users.

The outdated system must be updated, Chief Sarlo said, for not only public safety but the coordination of all government work out in the field.