What America can learn from Lancaster County

Rep. Joseph R. Pitts Congressman, Pennsylvania 16th District

When you watch television dramas about police officers or firefighters, you see first responders effortlessly using their radios to communicate with each other. In reality, radios aren’t perfectly reliable.

In Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, first responders use a decades-old VHF emergency radio system. This limited system can become overcrowded if too many people are trying to use the radio at the same time. There are places where these radios just don’t work. And firefighters, police officers and ambulance crews can’t directly talk to each other. They have to rely on relayed messages that take more time.

For years, Lancaster County has tried to replace this system with one similar to what the Pennsylvania State Police use. However, this was both expensive and had problems of its own.

What Lancaster County needed was a T-band system. T-band radio systems use a frequency in the same range as television. In the county, the frequency needed for the T-band radios was already claimed by WGAL, the local NBC TV affiliate.

WGAL intended to use this new spectrum to expand its coverage to television channel 15. However, when WGAL executives heard that the county’s best option for a new radio system required this channel, they offered to swap their spectrum.

Paul Quinn, president and general manager at WGAL, spoke about this decision: “When we did the research and realized that was one of the only options that the county had — and we had other less-desirable options — we were glad to do this.”

You may already know that the federal government owns radio spectrum in the United States and allocates frequencies through the Federal Communications Commission. The T-band is not typically used for public safety communications. While the county and WGAL agreed that channel 15 should be used for first responder radios, they still needed a waiver from the FCC.

For three years, the county tried to get this waiver. Despite the need for a new system, the FCC was moving slowly. When the commissioners contacted me about this need, I immediately began pressing for the FCC to issue a decision.

Finally, on February 9 the FCC approved the waiver for Lancaster County. This week, at a press conference at the Lancaster County Training Center, everyone who helped make the waiver possible came together for a press conference.

This was a cooperative effort between local first responders, elected officials, and WGAL. We were able to come together in the public interest to provide a new tool for those in Lancaster County who work to keep us safe.

While no system is perfect, the new T-band radios will be a dramatic improvement over the current system. Over 5,400 personnel will be able to use a system that spans 100 bands. This allows for great flexibility in how first responders communicate.

The new radios should be able to get a signal in areas where the old radios wouldn’t work. When firefighters and police officers go into basements and ravines, they will still be able to maintain a line of communication.

No system is perfect and there are still other issues that need to be resolved. The county will still need to buy the equipment, but the costs for this new system will be dramatically less than previous estimates. During this time of tight budgets, this means a safer community without new taxes that would hold back growth.

While I believe in a smaller, more efficient government, we have a great responsibility to keep citizens safe and provide aid in time of emergency. This week, we saw what is possible when the private sector and elected officials work together in the public interest.

Rep. Joe Pitts represents Pennsylvania’s Sixteenth Congressional District.