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Fire Department working to resolve serious dispatching problems


Critical communication systems the Shelter Island Fire Department relies on to save lives and property are malfunctioning.

For at least two months, not all Island firefighters are getting paged on emergency calls. For example, only three responded to a Saturday night page, according to Fire Chief Greg Salahian.

The serious situation results from a complexity of issues, said Fire Commissioner Larry Lechmanski, the main fire official handling communications here.

The breakdown, according to officials, is caused by several factors:
• A Greenport tower that had been used to ping the messages issued by Southold Police headquarters — which sends out the Islands’s emergency calls — is “outdated” with “exposed raw cooper wiring” and isn’t carrying the messages the way it should, Mr. Lechmanski said. “The Greenport tower is literally falling apart.”

Greenport Mayor George Hubbard, a long-time member of the Village’s Fire Department, said he had heard no complaints and was unaware of any problems, but would look into the matter.

• A backup dispatching service from Suffolk County that isn’t supporting “low band” service, which is the Islands’s system, because of a change to “high band” service. The result is that as parts break down on low band service, no money is being put into parts or repairs since all fire departments are being required by the Federal Communications Commission to switch to high band service.

• Plans for a new tower at the Manhanset Firehouse, proposed by Deer Park’s Elite Towers and approved by the Fire Department, haven’t been submitted to the Town Board for a special permit.

Attorney John Coughlin, who represents Elite, said he couldn’t predict when the application will be filed, but was working on it.

Shelter Island fire commissioners and department members are working on temporary solutions, according to Mr. Lechmanski and Chief Sulahian. An effort is afoot to move the Shelter Island equipment in Greenport to a tower in Peconic that will help fill the void until full high band service is available.

Andrew Heinz of Holbrook’s Integrated Wireless has advised Mr. Lechmanski that putting a new piece of equipment on the tower serving the Center Firehouse and purchasing extra pagers will help. It will cost more money, Mr. Lechmanski said, but at least provide a temporary solution.

Mr. Lechmanski will be discussing costs with his colleagues at the June 27 Board of Fire Commissioners meeting. If an agreement is reached on the extra expenditure, the purchases from Integrated Wireless will proceed.

Even then, it will take about 60 days to be up and running. In the meantime, an effort is being made to train more Shelter Island firefighters to monitor calls from Southold and then put information out through pagers directly on the Island.

For more than a year, Mr. Lechmanski has been closely monitoring activities and reporting them to the local Board of Fire Commissioners on both the North Fork and through the Suffolk County system as efforts gradually proceed toward the transfer to high band service.

But that transition has been something of a moving target, he said, with changes along the way about what to buy to meet eventual new needs for the department. Shelter Island has saved money by not immediately jumping on the bandwagon to purchase equipment that may have been costly, but insufficient to meet needs here, he said.

Nonetheless, there will be considerable expense to equip firefighters and vehicles with the proper radio equipment in the transition to high band service, Mr. Lechmanski said.

Chief Sulahian said he was worried — a serious fire could ignite on the Island and there won’t be enough first responders to answer the call in the first, critical moments of the emergency.