Emergency Communications in Rural Maine- Part One

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MAINE (WABI) - "You have to have an instant conference call system set up when you have an emergency, and a cell phone doesn't do that. When you reach out with your radio, every firefighter on scene hears that message, every police officer and EMT hears that message, the dispatch center hears the message, the Emergency Operations Center hears that message. So it's the ultimate conference call system," said Dale Rowley, Director of the Waldo County EMA.

When 911 is dialed, a landline or cell phone connects the caller to the nearest public safety answering point. That Regional Communications Center then dispatches police, fire, or EMT's to the location of the emergency via radio.

In a rural town like Machias, radio communications is imperative for day to day emergency response.

"For instance in this building I have a cell phone signal sitting here, but I could probably go into a back room and lose it," said Mike Hinerman, the Director of the Washington County Emergency Management Agency.

"The county maintains a full VHF system, multiple frequencies. They have frequencies dedicated to law enforcement, frequencies dedicated to fire. We've worked at upgrading those as much as possible with money available."

Many cities in Maine have upgraded to digital systems, but small town volunteer fire departments, such as in Washington County, don't have the budget to afford the advancing technology. And so the VHF system is here to stay.

"Small town volunteer fire departments with 10 or less members are not going to have the money to go out to buy the equipment to receive digital packages and tie into the internet and get GPS locators on their trucks and this kind of stuff. They're still going by the old style of 'this is the address, RCC- the dispatch center- will tell you how to get there if you don't know," said Hinerman

State police now utilize a digital system, while local police still use VHF analog frequencies.

"It's single-person patrols. There's no such thing as a team. They're all in their own car and there are three patrol areas in Washington County for 2700 square miles. There are times it could be an hour before the next county deputy can meet another one," said Hinerman.

In recent years federal dollars have been accepted to replace towers and upgrade radio equipment in the county.

Due to the topography of rural and coastal Maine, it's crucial that marine patrol, state police, game wardens, border patrol and local emergency responders have reliable communication at their disposal.

"If you can't broadcast your needs to other departments to come give you a hand, you're lost. So communications is one of the most important factors, period," said Hinerman.

Each county's EMA trains and prepares for a number of emergency scenarios. From wildfires, winter storms and floods to cyber attacks, mass casualty events and HAZMAT incidents, they're responsible for ensuring communication capabilities among all responding agencies.

"Our number one thing though is extended power outages in the wintertime," said Rowley.

In the modern world of communications hijacking and hacking, radio remains the failsafe of emergency response agencies particularly those in rural Maine. When cell phones and the internet fail or the power goes out, there are backup plans of contingency plans to make sure we don't lose contact with our neighbors.

No matter the emergency, the ability to communicate information is of the highest priority.