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Emergency dispatches may be better sent out by phone [Editorial]

Media IndustryCell Phones

Going back 25 years, mobile phones, as they were called in those days, were the size of small briefcases, and were prohibitively expensive and impractical for the average person.

In those days, police officers communicated mainly by radio dispatch and volunteer firefighters and ambulance crews in Harford County were issued radio pagers which activated whenever a network of transmitters broadcast a signal that emergency help was needed at a particular location.

Now, of course, almost everyone has at least one portable phone – we call them cell phones or just "our" phones – and they're small enough to carry just about anywhere.

While police still carry radios for communications, they rely increasingly on portable phones; the volunteer fire and ambulance service, however, continues to make use of dispatch pagers for the lion's share of getting people to the scene of emergency situations.

Recently, Harford County approved spending $515,000 on an addendum to a contract for work on an emergency communications broadcast tower that is part of the system in question. In the grand scheme of things, the amount spent is far from out of the ordinary for work to upgrade the various emergency communications systems, so there's no particular reason to be critical of this particular expenditure.

There is, however, good reason to ask a question about the way emergency dispatches are being made these days. Specifically, are continuing upgrades to the various pager alert and police radio systems the best way to go?

Way back when phones had rotary dials, or even when the keypad revolution took place, it would have been a tedious matter to assign emergency dispatchers the task of calling each member of a fire company on the phone to get the necessary crews together.

Modern smart phones, even the older, weaker versions of them, are very much capable of a much higher level of communication than even the most advanced phone of the days when pagers were the epitome of technology.

Is it possible the day has come when police communications radios, fire and ambulance pagers and smart phones can all be rolled into one? Certainly the many advances touted by cell phone companies, as well as mass calling capabilities such as those used to alert parents when schools are closed mean there is a high level of communications technology available in just about every purse or pocket that could easily be harnessed for less expensive emergency dispatch.

And if the problem is one that radio towers aren't providing the level of phone reception that is required, might it not be more economical for various government agencies to pay into upgrading phone networks that benefit both the emergency dispatch system and the phone using general public?

It always is possible to continue with the existing system on the grounds that the level of separation that was needed to accommodate the needs of commercial phones and emergency dispatch system a generation ago is good to maintain in the modern era.

Given the cost of modern communications equipment, however, and the amount of money the county has spent over the years upgrading emergency dispatch equipment, there's good reason to look into whether a radical consolidation of uses is warranted.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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