Tuesday, September 2, 2003

The D.C. Emergency Management Agency demanded the return of 12 radios it loaned to the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad three years ago, citing a lack of adequate communications systems on hand in the event of a major emergency.

“As you know, we are a small agency with an important mission and we have very limited resources in both people and equipment,” EMA communications director Andrew Jackson said in a June 2 letter to B-CC Rescue Squad Chief Edward Sherburne. The radios were returned about three weeks ago, he said.

“In the event of an emergency and/or a disaster, we find that we do not have adequate communications equipment on hand to respond and communicate in accordance with the District of Columbia Emergency Response Plan.”

D.C. Emergency Management Director Peter LaPorte said taking back the radios would not have an operational impact because an 800-megahertz radio system set up in Montgomery County in July allows the rescue squad to communicate with the District’s emergency workers.

“They already have a system that works, and it works quite well,” Mr. LaPorte said.

He said he needed the radios to give to other agencies who fulfill parts of the District’s emergency plan, such as the departments of Human Services, Public Works, and Parks and Recreation.

Chief Sherburne said Montgomery County’s new system accommodates for day-to-day communications with D.C. emergency workers but does not allow for certain D.C. “talk groups” to be installed on county radios. Those talk groups communicate when there is a large volume of activity or a special event.

He said anything from a terrorist attack to last Tuesday’s severe thunderstorms could mean switching to channels not installed on the rescue squad’s radios.

He said he was “very surprised” when Mr. LaPorte’s agency requested the radios be returned, especially since Mr. LaPorte authorized them to be given to the rescue squad three years ago.

The chief said for the tens of thousands of dollars in ambulance calls the squad provides the District, a one-time donation of 12 radios, or about $35,000, was not unreasonable.

Mr. LaPorte said he had expert advice that the current system, and its mutual-aid capacity for communicating among jurisdictions, would be sufficient.

“We are not putting in any jeopardy the communications capacity between D.C. Fire and EMS and the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Rescue Squad,” he said, adding he would discuss any concerns Chief Sherburne has and attempt to address any shortcomings with the radio system.

The Bethesda Chevy-Chase Rescue Squad, a private rescue service operating out of Montgomery County since 1937, formalized a partnership with the D.C. Fire and EMS Department in May 2001. The rescue squad signed a memorandum of understanding allowing ambulances to respond to medical calls in upper Northwest.

The rescue squad’s service area includes Chevy Chase, Tenleytown and Spring Valley.

From Aug. 1, 2002, to July 31, 2003, the rescue squad ran more than 1,382 medical calls into the District, according to department statistics. The city’s reliance on the rescue squad grew when the Tenleytown firehouse, Engine Co. 20, was closed for renovations in June 2002.

In July, the city fired the construction company renovating the station house because of a lack of performance. The station house is closed indefinitely, and Ambulance 20, which was stationed at Engine. Co. 20, was moved to Engine Co. 21 in Adams Morgan.

The first request for the radios’ return was issued in April. On May 1, Chief Sherburne wrote to Mr. Jackson requesting he deliver the order in writing and asking him to reconsider the recall.

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