Orcas Fire experiences communications outage during double search and rescue effort, fire call

A communications outage left San Juan County Dispatch unable to hail Orcas Island Fire and Rescue personnel for several minutes during a double search and rescue effort on Mount Constitution Saturday night.

The OIFR frequency went down following a power outage while rescue crews were on the mountainside attempting to locate a total of three people lost in two separate areas. Shortly before losing communications an additional call went out for fire personnel to respond to a residential carbon monoxide alarm.

During the outage, first responders had no way of communicating with Dispatch or each other about search efforts or the need for request resources for any of the emergency scenes; nor did OIFR first responders know if additional 9-1-1 calls were coming in.

Most emergency scenes require complex coordination of personnel, equipment, apparatus and other resources. The ability to communicate these needs with Dispatch and fellow responders is vital to ensuring safe and efficient response to emergencies throughout the island.

While the current emergency communication system has a redundancy in place for times like these, crews are looking into the reason there was a temporary loss of radio transmission. The system and its components have grown out-of-date and are slated to be replaced by an improved system in the near future.

After years of ongoing communication issues throughout the islands during emergencies, San Juan County voters passed an increase to sales tax this past February for the purpose of upgrading the Emergency Communications System throughout the county.

The increase of two-tenths of one percent is scheduled to take effect in July and will generate funding to implement a new system on existing infrastructure, with multiple redundancies to ensure emergency responders will have access to reliable communications when needed.

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