Riverhead finds temporary solution to ambulance communications issue; will explore permanent fix

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An equipment breakdown that led to radio communication issues for the Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps last week has been temporarily resolved, town officials said Thursday. The town has been loaned a radio repeater, which allows two-way radio signals to cover longer distances, that will remain in place until a permanent solution to the ambulance’s emergency radios are resolved. 

Keith Lewin, the president of the Riverhead Volunteer Ambulance Corps board of directors, said the radio repeater went online Thursday afternoon.

“Everything was working the way it should,” he said. “Now we’ve got to find out why the original backup failed to work properly.”

The loaner does not include the backup system, he said.

The problems began last Friday and were first reported by Riverhead Local Wednesday.

At Thursday’s work session, police Lt. Dave Lessard and officials said the system is working well now, but will need a permanent replacement. Following the work session, Supervisor Laura Jens-Smith issued a press release saying the issue is being addressed and called for a plan of action that involves immediately purchasing new, state-of-the-art equipment.

The town also will work to upgrade its entire communications system, and once the problems are solved, she is calling for a meeting with police and other emergency responders to come up with new emergency measures to streamline the procedures in the event of a future radio breakdown.

“Equipment fails, things break down, but protecting the public is our most important job,” Ms. Jens-Smith said in a press release. “When it comes to public safety, there is no compromise.”

So what happened?

Lt. Lessard said that last Friday, Aug. 16 at about 3 p.m., he was informed that the town was having an issue with the primary radio for the ambulance corps.

He asked dispatch to contact Integrated Wireless, the company that does all of the work on the town’s radio systems, to investigate the problem. But Integrated Wireless said they were under the impression that the ambulance corps was responsible for the system, and Integrated Wireless could not authorize the police to call for the repairs.

The ambulance corps went to a backup radio repeater after that, but over the weekend, it became clear that the backup system didn’t have as much signal strength as needed, Lt. Lessard said. Despite this, he said, there were no missed calls as a result of the poor signal strength.

At that point, the ambulance contacted Suffolk County Suffolk County Fire, Rescue and Emergency Services, and they set up an operational channel on the town police console, and also provided ambulance volunteers with 20 portable radios that could be reached through that channel.

But by Monday, it was determined that it was not the ambulances’ radio system, and that the town needed to be involved, Lt. Lessard said. He said a loaner radio repeater was installed Thursday by Integrated Wireless. 

“From what I’m being told, it’s working as good as it ever did,” Lt. Lessard said. It will remain in place until the town gets a new radio repeater.

The town’s radios are very old, he said.

“The system we have has been here since before I was here, so that’s more than 30 years,” Lt. Lessard said. “This is the first time we’ve ever had an issue with it or heard of an issue with it, but it’s been around for quite a while.”

Since the FRES channel and portable radios were put in place Monday, “we’ve had no issues, and no complaints about any missed calls or transmission issues,” Lt. Lessard said. “Everything seems to be fine at this point.”

The FRES system will not be needed while the loaner repeater is being used, he said.

Councilman Tim Hubbard said he is concerned with the pace of the town’s response. He said he got an email from someone in the supervisor’s office saying, “I realize the urgency of this matter. Can we set up a meeting next week to figure this out.”

Mr. Hubbard said that email was sent on Monday, Aug. 19.

“You don’t understand the urgency if you think we can wait until next week,” he said.

Ms. Jens-Smith said the FRES system was already in place by then. She said Mr. Hubbard is the Town Board liaison to the ambulance corps, and he never contacted her. Mr. Hubbard said he texted her as soon as he learned of the issue.

Mr. Lewin said the cost of replacing the just the primary system is about $16,000, and the price of replacing the primary system plus improved coverage in the western part of the district in places like Manorville will cost about $92,000. But neither of those estimates including installing a backup repeater, he said.

“We don’t know why it didn’t work,” Mr. Lewin said. “We think it is because the antennas is too low. But 20 years ago, we weren’t running 4,000 calls per year.”

The primary radio repeater is on Cablevision’s Route 58 tower, and the backup is at the town police station, he said.

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