By Kathryn G. Menu
During the Main Street fire in Sag Harbor on December 16, an estimated 143 calls through East Hampton Town’s emergency radio communication system — which covers not only government employees, but also police departments, volunteer ambulance organizations and fire departments, including those in Sag Harbor — were blocked, the systems five channels tied up as emergency service providers across the South Fork responded to the historic blaze.
According to East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo and police department communications technician Edward Schnell, this is just one problem with a 20 year-old radio system that is so outdated finding replacement parts has become challenging, if not impossible in some cases.
During the East Hampton Town Board work session in Montauk on Tuesday, Chief Sarlo and Mr. Schnell discussed the need for a full replacement of that analog system, which Mr. Schnell said had “reached its end of life.”
The system was originally installed in 1997 and 1998 with the intention of serving 250 users between Montauk and Noyac. According to Mr. Schnell, there are now 900 users on the system, which is operated through towers in Amagansett, East Hampton Village, Montauk, Noyac, and Wainscott. In addition to replacing literally every piece of the infrastructure with a digital radio communication system, Mr. Schnell recommended increasing the number of channels from five to seven, noting the number of users has increased to the point where 500 attempts to communicate through the system were unsuccessful between March and December of 2016.
“If we have some major event, we could have half the island’s resources here working on five channels,” said Mr. Schnell.
Mr. Schnell said he was waiting on a final proposal from Motorola — the company the town contracts with for this service — and that the new system would be good for roughly 17 years once installed. Supervisor Larry Cantwell, who noted the town would have to work with fire districts, as well as the villages of East Hampton and Sag Harbor on this proposal, said a reasonable timeframe to get the project off the ground is early 2018. He added the town would work with local fire departments and first responders to ensure they were prepared for the change in service.
“I think we plan this as carefully as we can over the next six to eight months and we get this out to contract by the end of this year,” said Mr. Cantwell.
While the town board planned to fund the project with $2.5 million in its capital plan budget line for 2018 and another $2.5 million for 2019, Mr. Cantwell said it might need to fund the full $5 million in the first year.
On Wednesday, Chief Sarlo said this was a “critical” project for public safety.
“Without getting into all the technical aspects of the kind of problems we could encounter not upgrading this system, without the ability to quickly get replacement parts, we could have significant gaps in service leaving our first responders without communication systems,” he said. “That could be an officer unable to call for backup, a firefighter in a burning building not able to communicate with other firefighters, or even a call not making it through from dispatch to officers in the field. Any kind of gap of loss of service could be critical or life threatening.”