Still out of range: Northumberland County hopes 3 new towers will boost signal, fix 911 woes

Northumberland County 911 workers answer calls inside the Sunbury building on Tuesday afternoon.

SUNBURY — Two emergency responders from the eastern portion of Northumberland County met with county officials on Tuesday to discuss the ongoing issues with 911 communications.

Brian Hollenbush, the police chief and fire marshal of Mount Carmel Township, and Mount Carmel Borough Assistant Fire Chief Jack Williams spoke with Commissioners Sam Schiccatano and Kymberley Best and 911 coordinator Russ Fellman about the troublesome system, but also a separate issue that prevents Northumberland County emergency responders from connecting to neighboring counties' systems.

"Honestly, I don't know if it will be resolved," said Hollenbush. "I've been dealing with this radio project for so long, I don't know if it will be taken care of or not. If we go into Columbia or Schuylkill County, we cannot talk to them. If we respond, we don't have their channels or frequencies on our radios."

Still out of range: Northumberland County hopes 3 new towers will boost signal, fix 911 woes

Coal Township Patrolman Christopher Lapotsky uses a police radio inside his police cruiser on Thursday.

In March, elected and emergency officials from Mount Carmel, Mount Carmel Township, Atlas, Kulpmont and East Cameron Township sent a letter to the county and met with officials about their issues with communications, specifically about the inter-county communication that is partially resolved. 

Every county has their own 911 system, which has certain codes, and walkie talkies are coded to accept that system. All the walkie talkies in Northumberland County are authorized to accept 911 codes from Northumberland County. Schuylkill County has a different code system and 911 system, Schiccatano explained.

Schiccatano compared it to Wi-Fi service where people coming into a house need a password to access the internet.

Schuylkill County now works in Northumberland County's system, and the two agencies are working on having Northumberland County work in Schuylkill County, he said.

Williams, the firefighter in charge of Anthracite Steam Fire Company, said the Schuylkill County radios have more features, so it was a matter of a "small upgrade" to fix it. The opposite way is "a little more complex" that is still being worked on, he said.

"I was satisfied with the meeting," said Williams. "I expect within the next few weeks to have our radios upgraded to talk to Schuylkill County." 

Schiccatano said the meeting was to ensure everyone was on the same page and to report the status of the upgrades.

"We already have straightened out Schuylkill County coming into Northumberland County," he said. "Their 911 system is not compatible at this point with ours. It's a software upgrade."

Commissioner Kymberley Best said the county is negotiating with Motorola to provide the flash upgrades needed for county radios to communicate with Schuylkill and Columbia counties. 

Schiccatano also addressed a medical helicopter having trouble communicating with ground personnel at a serious accident on Route 61 in March. It, too, has the same root problem.

Lehigh Valley Health Network MedEVac responded to the crash. Geisinger's Life Flight helicopters weren’t available at the time of the call, so the next due helicopter was dispatched, said Geisinger spokesman Marc Stempka. 

Schiccatano said the MedEVac hadn't been into the county since the new system was upgraded, and didn't have the codes at the time to connect with Northumberland County.

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