Tom Duggan – December, 2007
In 1995, a devastating fire ripped through the Malden Mills factory on Broadway in Methuen. Firefighters and police officers responded to the emergency from allover the Commonwealth.
As the out-of-town public safety officials began to arrive at the scene, chaos ensued as it became nearly impossible to coordinate which police and firefighters would perform which emergency tasks in and around the Malden Mills building. Because the two-way radio system that fire and police departments use is on a separate and unique frequency they were incapable of communicating with each other.
In fact, contrary to popular perception, police and firefighters within each individual city and town don’t even have the ability to talk to each other on their two way radios because each department’s radio system uses a different frequency.
So, while the all-alarm fire at Malden Mills was raging out of control, there was no way for North Andover firefighters, for example, to communicate with Lawrence and Methuen firefighters who were already in the building. There was no way for emergency medial responders from other communities to know where to set up staging for victims of the fire because there was no central communication system to coordinate the relief effort.
But thanks to a Homeland Security grant awarded to the city of Lawrence, now the chaos that ensued during the Malden Mills fire will never happen again. The $100,000 grant received by the Lawrence Fire Department has paid for equipment and training for what is called the ARINC communication system.
“The state grant was for $400,000 for four communities,” said Lawrence Fire Chief Takvorian. “$100,000 of that came to Lawrence to pay for communication equipment called ARINC. What this equipment does is, it allows radios systems from every other community to be able to talk to teach other, which was never available before, it was just never possible.”
“This system uses the same technology as the aviation technology used in airports. Using this technology in an emergency response communication system means we can now talk to any fire department, police department or ambulance on the same channel so we can communicate with each other.”
“Before we had this system, we couldn’t talk directly to North Andover. So, for example, if Dracut has a radio from Ipswich or Topsfield, those two communities could talk to each other with just that one radio. But nobody else in those units could communicate with anyone else but the person who had the radio.”
“Now, with this ARINC communication system, we can put every department responding to an emergency onto the same frequency no matter where they are coming from. I can even call in to the Fire Alarm [building] and they can patch me into the system. I can talk to my men right on the scene.
Under a plan designed by Homeland Security, Massachusetts has been sectioned off into fire districts (see map) with one community in each district being fire control points. Currently there are four control points: Lawrence (in district 15), Beverly (in district 5), Ashland (in district 14) and Westford (in district 6).
The ARINC communication system was designed so that there is enough redundancy to allow other targeted communities to take over if there is a fire or other emergency tying up emergency officials within a particular district.
“If there is another explosion like the one in Danvers last year, and Beverly [being the control point in that district] is all tied up with their own fire or emergency, they can hand off command and control to Lawrence,” Chief Takvorian continued. “We have all the information in our computer system so that we can call up exactly what that community needs and which neighboring communities to notify first.”
“For example,” he continued, “if a community calls us and says they need a forestry truck, we can pull up this system to see which community is closest to the emergency and dispatch that forestry truck to the community in need. Until we got the ARINC system we would have to start calling other communities to see who had a forestry truck and we lost valuable time responding to that emergency.”
Takvorian said that because Lawrence has an emergency communication system which in a stand-alone building, (as opposed to other communities that house their 911 call centers in a police or fire station), Lawrence was chosen as the first community in the state to receive the funding and training.
Currently, Lawrence and Beverly are interoperable and have nearly completed all their training and installation of the ARINC communication system, with Ashland and Westford scheduled to come on line early next year. “Right now we are working with cardboard cards that tell us, if Danvers goes to a third alarm, here are the pieces of equipment that Lawrence should call out for help. But, later when we get this system all hooked up, we will be able to use the computer program to give us the list right away and the ARINC system will allow the radios of everyone responding to be able to communicate.”
In March, The Valley Patriot will detail more about the ARINC system and provide updated information as other communities begin to train and use the emergency