Officials patch York County 911 paging glitch, but questions linger

Jason Addy
York Dispatch

For more than 10 days, outdated software caused a disconnect between York County 911 dispatchers and emergency responders, but normal order was — mostly — restored Wednesday, Aug. 9, with the installation of new equipment.

Scott Keener, project manager at the York County 911 center, speaks about a recent software glitch that disrupted communications between 911 dispatchers and York County first responders. Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. Jason Addy photo.

About an hour after the equipment updates took effect, dozens of first responders showed up at the county's 911 center in Springettsbury Township to voice concerns — some long-standing, some brought about by the glitch — over emergency communications systems in the area.

A handful of fire chiefs urged county officials to implement a countywide backup system to avoid another prolonged breakdown in communication between responders and dispatchers.

Some went further, calling for a leadership shake-up at the center to help ease the strained relationship between some departments and county officials, though no actions were taken by the York County commissioners and state representatives at the meeting.

Firmware glitch: After reaching the end of its lifespan on July 30, firmware on the 911 center’s communications equipment reset to its originally programmed date of Dec. 14, 1997. 

Because the center's communications equipment only dates back to 2001, the firmware didn’t recognize the almost 20-year-old date, leading to the outage that prevented the 911 center’s GPS signal from reaching a Coast Guard satellite that sends pages to fire and EMS personnel, officials have said.

More:County 911 paging system remains limited, devices ordered

The 911 center ordered 20 new Trimble-manufactured Thunderbolt devices, which will allow dispatchers to once again reach fire and EMS responders on their pagers, said York County spokesman Mark Walters.

Scott Keener, 911 center project manager, picked up the new devices on the 11th day of ongoing issues, and they were installed around the county Wednesday night to restore paging capabilities.

“(The devices) are put on the different towers to allow those towers to send a GPS signal from our dispatch center to the pockets of fire and EMS responders,” Walters said.

An employee talks with a co-worker at the York County 911 Center Monday, July 31, 2017. County spokesman Mark Walters and lead training supervisor Roxie Tate talked with the media Monday, Feb. 26 regarding recent problems with the center's paging system. Bill Kalina photo

More:York County 911 paging system returns in limited capacity

Limiting inconveniences: Since the system went down, county officials have worked to restore the services while trying to limit the inconveniences and problems for fire and EMS responders, Walters said.

The 911 center borrowed nine pieces of communication equipment from other counties, including seven from Dauphin County, Walters said, adding that an employee drove to Chester County to pick up one device just “to get a little bit more coverage.”

New devices were ordered Aug. 2, but in the interim, 911 dispatchers had been reaching fire and EMS responders on “bulky, heavy and loud” handheld radios, Walters said.

With the technical issues nearing their end, Walters praised York County fire departments, EMS responders and 911 dispatchers for their “professionalism,” “strength” and “willingness to work through this.”

“I’d say they’ve all done a spectacular job rising to the occasion amid this inconvenience,” Walters said.

'Healthy discussion': Nearly 60 officials from fire and EMS departments across the county converged on the York County 911 center Wednesday, Aug. 9, to talk about the status of the county's emergency communications systems with 911 center officials, commissioners and state representatives.

Many of those who spoke up at the meeting were chiefs of their respective departments, including Eureka Volunteer Fire Co. Chief Ira Walker Jr.

More:Problem with York County 911 paging system could last days

Like others, Walker said the 911 center's failure to have any backup systems or redundancies in place in case of technological issues "blows my mind."

Firefighters from Eureka, Craley and other volunteer fire companies fared worse than their professional counterparts during the paging outage, said Craley Fire Chief Jesse Frantz.

Because there was no countywide backup system ready to go at the time of the glitch, volunteer fire companies were forced to man their stations at all times starting at the end of July to ensure they were hearing calls for service, Frantz said.

Both Walker and Frantz reported their companies did not miss a single call during the outage, despite the added workload and strain on volunteers.

The meeting took place shortly after officials said the 911 system was once again operating at full capacity. To prove that the system was fully functional, Keener sent out a test page to firefighters across the county.

About a minute later, the discussion was interrupted as most of the responders' pagers went off, but shortly after it became clear that some pagers were still not receiving calls.

The not-entirely-successful test ratcheted up the tension that was beginning to grow between some of the firefighters in attendance and county officials sitting at the front of the 911 center's conference room.

Still, York County Commissioner Doug Hoke said after the meeting he was happy to have all the stakeholders in one room for a "healthy discussion" about how to improve the county's 911 system.

Those in attendance provided county commissioners with a wealth of ideas on how to improve the 911 system, from leadership changes at the 911 center to an audit of the center's operations under former executive director Eric Bistline to mobile-app based redundancies.

Hoke said the commissioners will start working through the comments and questions soon to see what could work for York County, but he was noncommittal about the commissioners' initial course of action.

"All the options are open," Hoke said.