Electronic noise drowning out signals for Alpha firefighters

Jessica Zimmerman, a 911 dispatcher, works in the Centre County communications center in Bellefonte on Thursday.
Jessica Zimmerman, a 911 dispatcher, works in the Centre County communications center in Bellefonte on Thursday. CDT photo

The profusion of cellphones and tablet computers, nothing new on the Penn State campus or in downtown State College, is supposed to make life more convenient.

It’s having the opposite effect for an unlikely group — emergency responders.

Firefighters at Alpha Fire Company in downtown State College have for some time been experiencing equipment problems blamed on the massive amounts of “cellular noise” caused by all these devices.

And as the gadgets become more common, and the area more developed, the cacophony continues to grow.

It means, occasionally, that the pagers firefighters carry don’t receive signals informing them of emergencies.

“When you have a lot of noise energy like that, the signal you want them (firefighters) to receive has to have more energy than all that noise,” said Dan Tancibok, Centre County’s director of Emergency Communications and 911.

“Gradually, over time, it’s been growing,” he said. “It’s getting harder and harder for us to punch through.”

Now, as part of the county’s recent 911 system upgrade, officials are taking a stab at solving the problem.

Tancibok said the county is placing an antenna on the Donald H. Ford building on the Penn State campus. It’s meant to create a stronger signal to talk to those pagers.

He told the county commissioners this week that the downtown Alpha station at the intersection of South Atherton Street and West Beaver Avenue is “ironically, one of worst places for reception” in the area.

That assessment is not a surprise to Steve Bair, Centre Region fire director.

Bair said that poor service at the fire station leads to a number of issues, including garbled or scratchy voice messages from the county dispatch center, and problems with the pagers firefighters carry.

Even without his pager, Bair can hear Alpha calls when in the station, but he, and others, wear multiple hats and might miss other types of calls without their pagers, like those for emergency management or a hazardous materials spill.

Bair said that several times a week, the radio reception is so bad that the in-house alerting system fails to operate. Firefighters have, on occasion, had to wake others in the station overnight when they could not hear a call, he said.

“I do not believe the situation has placed anyone at risk (yet), but it seems to be getting worse,” Bair wrote in an email. “If it gets worse it may truly impact a response, and that is unacceptable.”

Tancibok said officials hope the new antenna on the Ford building leads to better coverage in downtown buildings and better reception for the pagers, including in the Alpha fire station.

Placing the antenna is one of the last steps remaining in the installation of county’s new 911 system.

Tancibok told the county commissioners that officials could be ready to shut down the old system entirely by next week. They would then start dismantling the old infrastructure.

As it is, police, fire, public works, county agencies and others are already on the new system, he said.

“It’s working,” Tancibok said.