Problems with fire department pagers plague county

GENESEE COUNTY — Issues with new pagers going in and out of service have frustrated firefighters in Genesee County for months and has now prompted 911 to reprogram the devices as a possible solution.

Last summer, the Genesee County 911 Consortium purchased 800 new pagers for all of the firefighters in the county at a cost of $450,000.

The new 800 MHz pagers went into service last fall and since, many departments have reported problems with the devices. As a result, the consortium has taken all the pagers back and have reprogrammed them in hopes of eliminating the problem or lost signals and firefighters potentially not receiving pages.

“We have indeed experienced issues with the new 800 MHz pagers, including out-of-range. We have been providing written documentation to Genesee County 911 on specific issues that our personnel have experienced,” said Chief Thomas Stadler of the Flint Township Fire Department. “Our personnel currently are relying on the old system (VHF paging) to receive alarms. All 800 MHz pagers for our personnel have been gathered, and are awaiting reprogramming by Genesee County 911. There is not a timeline for correcting all issues, and this has certainly been a frustrating process (to implement the new pagers) for us.”

In Davison, the Fire Authority discussed the problem last month, with Chief Mike Wright calling the problem “very frustrating.”

“It’s a safety issue,” said Wright. “You don’t know if the pagers are working or not.”

He added the pagers worked well in testing last year, but have had constant issues since going into service. Davison, like the other fire departments, have kept their old pagers in service so they will be warned if there’s a fire by one or both systems.

The Grand Blanc Fire Department experienced the same problems with the 800 MHz pagers that many of the departments from around the county experienced; battery charging was not successful, shorter operating life of the pager when the battery showed that it was fully charged and frequent warnings that the pager is out of range and will not receive calls.

Multiple attempts were made to correct problems, said officials, which included changing the pager battery, to multiple reprogramming attempts by the fire department to which the pager was assigned.

Only recently, the Genesee County Central Dispatch decided that the pagers needed to be reprogrammed by them to correct the problem.

In addition, they recognized a need to improve the training to the dispatchers on the new system.

Since this occurred, Grand Blanc Fire Chief Robert Burdette said he has not heard of any charging problems or pagers not receiving a call.

The firefighters that use the pagers said they like the way they operate. The voice announcement is clearer having little static interference, so the dispatcher’s announcement and fire ground operations are heard.

Gaines Township Fire Chief Joe Hyrman said his crews’ pagers have been adjusted and seem to be working better. Hyrman referred further questions to township Supervisor Paul Fortino.

“The pagers are more sophisticated than the old ones; they go offline more often,” said Fortino.

“No one knows for sure how often. They beep when they go out and they beep when they come back on.”

Fortino said it appeared that buildings, trees, and even heavy coats may have been blocking the signals.

“For a couple of firefighters, the things just wouldn’t work at their houses,” he said.

While the leadership at 911 works to reprogram all of the pagers, the old VHF pagers are still up and running and many firefighters, particularly in rural areas on the perimeter of the county, are carrying both, he said.

He added that the fire department has not yet had enough fire runs to determine whether the adjustments have been effective.

Fortino said he is aware that some area fire chiefs did not want the public informed about the pager problem.

“I’m not sure why they want to keep it a secret,” he said. “There’s a big controversy with the chiefs’ association. I don’t know why. It’s not a military secret. It’s just a problem we have. It’s one of those darn things they didn’t know it was going to happen. There’s no real reason not to talk about it other than maybe they don’t want people to be unnecessarily concerned.”

Davison Township Supervisor Karen Miller, who also sits on the county 911 board, said the reprogramming will hopefully be the end of the issues with the pagers.

“When they were ordered and came in they gave the pagers to the departments and the departments programmed them,” she said. “Then there were problems with good reception. So we’ve gone to a person who is second highest programmer in the state. He’s setting the programming to what he thinks it should be.”

She said the board also voted to allow the chiefs in each department to decide if the pagers should be set to notify users with a noise when they go in or out of range. Previously they were not set up to give a warning.

“Anytime you have a change, that massive of a change, there’s going to be problems,” said Miller.

The new 800 MHz pagers are an upgrade to VHF paging, in use since the 1980s. That system has reached the end of its life in Genesee County, meaning if it is not upgraded, there is a possibility it will cease to work. The new pagers are supposed to be the next generation of communications for emergency and fire responders.

(Staff writers Paula Schmidt, Lania Rocha, Rhonda Sanders and Gary Gould contributed to this report.)

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