Bridge crash report lists radio problems

The Baltimore Sun

Rescue workers from five state agencies were unable to communicate with each other by radio when they responded to a fatal crash on the Chesapeake Bay Bridge in May, though officials said command procedures in place mitigated the issue.

"We're not aware that it materially affected the incident," said John Contestabile, the Maryland Department of Transportation's director of engineering and emergency services.

Battalion Chief Michael Cox, a spokesman for the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, said rescue workers from his county and from Queen Anne's County had radios that used the same technology.

Although the state agencies didn't, commanders were able to manage the response by using protocols developed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Cox said.

Representatives from each agency assembled at a command post so that decisions made there could be communicated to all rescue workers in the field, Cox said.

Communications difficulties between emergency workers in New York and in Washington were blamed for hamstringing the response to the 2001 attacks.

The Bay Bridge communication issue came up in a post-incident analysis written by the Maryland Transportation Authority Police. Such analyses are standard after major incidents such as the one in May, which left three people dead and forced the closing of the westbound span for about 7 1/2 hours May 10.

"I don't believe at all that whatever they're citing in that report made any difference in the outcome of this incident," Cox said. "A unified command system was established."

Gov. Martin O'Malley has made communications among law enforcement and emergency response agencies one of his administration's top priorities.

He discussed interoperable communications with local leaders for more than an hour at last week's Maryland Association of Counties Meeting and said he considers it unacceptable that nearly six years after the Sept. 11 attacks, the state's communications systems still aren't seamless.

Contestabile said the state has employed a consultant for more than a year in its effort to move all emergency responders in Maryland to a unified system. But that effort is time-consuming and costly. In the meantime, Contestabile said, much of the state and federal investment in homeland security has gone to technological patches that help workers overcome the issue.

Since 2001, the state has developed two regional communications networks, one in the Baltimore area and the other on the Eastern Shore.

"Both of those systems have come on line within the last 18 months and provide interoperability," Contestabile said. "There has been some serious attention paid to this, and there's been technology employed that has improved interoperability."

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