Three and a half years after East Hampton Town Police Chief Michael Sarlo told the town board that the town's emergency communications system had reached the end of its useful life and was in need of a major overhaul, "we're slowly but surely getting there," he said on Tuesday.
Ed Schnell, the Police Department's communications technician, told the board that "we're on track to start moving users" from the old, analog system to a new, digital system in the fall, possibly in October.
The system is used by police along with all fire departments and ambulance companies, town bus drivers, Highway Department workers, parks and recreation staff, and others. In addition to the local entities using the system, emergency responders from departments all the way to Riverhead can also access the system as necessary, to respond to mutual aid calls, for example.
The existing system, with four channels for talking and one for control, was not designed to accommodate the present number of users. Too many people attempting to communicate over radios at the same time results in system-overload incidents, or "busies." The new system effectively triples capacity, Mr. Schnell said. "Thankfully," Chief Sarlo said, "our issues have been minor, to the point where we haven't had any major interruptions or drops in communications" prior to the new system becoming operational.
Mr. Schnell described mostly "minor punch list items" remaining to be completed on emergency communications towers and ancillary structures at Town Hall in East Hampton, and in Amagansett, Montauk, Wainscott, and Noyac, the latter at a site leased from the Town of Southampton.
New consoles are mostly installed at Police Department headquarters in Wainscott and the Emergency Services Building in East Hampton Village, with a few accessory items to be installed closer to the changeover from the old system, Mr. Schnell said.
Required Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Communications Commission approvals in place for the antenna on a hill east of Lake Montauk known as the GATR site, Mr. Schnell said, and radio equipment have been received. "It's progressing nicely," he said.
That site was not part of the original upgrade plan, Supervisor Peter Van Scoyoc said, referring to a two-decade process of trying to secure the site to locate communications equipment there. Owing to Montauk's hilly terrain, the sole existing communications tower, at the hamlet's capped landfill, is inadequate, Mr. Schnell said. Coverage is "really bad" toward the Lighthouse, he said, and not much better at the docks because that area is shaded by the hill at Culloden Point. Emergency communications infrastructure at the GATR site "fixes 99 percent of that," he said.
Fine-tuning and testing of the new system will begin when everything is in place, Mr. Schnell said, and then "we will move one smaller town agency over that has a wide coverage area." The new system's performance will be assessed and any problems or gaps in service addressed before police and fire departments are brought online, he said.
The old system will remain as a backup "as long as it lives," Mr. Schnell said, though it is "probably not going to last too long."