Lyndonville: Police Chief Suffers Radio Blackout During Chase

Robin Smith
Staff Writer,
Caledonian Record

Vermont State Police will investigate why Lyndonville Police Chief Jack Harris had communication problems during a dispatching test conducted at the same time a high-speed chase on Wednesday.

The chase involving a stolen truck occurred at 12:30 p.m. while state police were conducting a 24-hour dispatching test. The Williston 911 center – called a public safety answering point (PSAP) – was handling calls normally picked up in Derby. The Shumlin administration wants to merge all dispatching from the PSAP in Derby into Williston.

Harris, who provided back up during part of the chase northbound on Interstate 91, said he could not reach the dispatcher handling the emergency when he joined the pursuit and gave up after 10 minutes of trying. He tried to sign off and couldn’t get through then either. His computer showed that he was never logged in by dispatchers and never logged out.

"I could have been in a crash," he said, and no one at the PSAP would have known it.

"Somebody could get killed out of this," Harris said.

The test is scheduled to run until 10 a.m. today, VSP Captain Don Patch said Wednesday.

Patch said that he did not know as of mid-afternoon Wednesday why Harris could not reach the dispatchers during the pursuit or afterward.

Initial feedback he received immediately after the chase, from both the Bradford and Derby barracks commanders, was that the dispatching worked, Patch said.

On Wednesday, after the problems he experienced, Harris said he contacted dispatchers in Derby who told him his communications were loud and clear.

Until the test is over, Harris said he will monitor all police communications while his younger officers are out on patrol, to make sure everything goes well. And he said he wants a report on what happened from state police. Lyndonville is one of the few area agencies that pays for VSP dispatching service, Harris said.

The incident left Harris with questions about the merger.

Until Wednesday, he had not taken a stand on the merger, one of several being done to save state police $1.7 million in equipment and manpower.

A merger 15 years ago of all small Northeast Kingdom dispatching services into Derby went well, Harris said.

Harris said he had expected the merger of Derby into Williston to go just as smoothly.

He was on the fence, but not any more.

"It may be a good idea to wait until they work this out," Harris said.

Lyndonville is one of the few area agencies using the dispatch system that pays for it, Harris said. That adds to his concern.

It’s the second test of the system in preparation for the merger, Patch said, project manager for the merger of Williston and Derby PSAPs.

The local agencies that rely on VSP dispatching were alerted about it in advance, Harris and Patch said.

There were some minor computer glitches in technology in the morning Wednesday, Patch said, similar to what a home computer operate might experience but nothing unusual.

Patch has asked VSP Captain Bob Cushing to contact Harris and look into what happened.

On Wednesday, anyone calling the Derby barracks public phone number, 802-334-8881, would have talked to a dispatcher in Williston as part of a test of the transfer of phones and radio communications, Patch said.

The 911 calls during the test were picked up in Derby and then transferred to Williston, Patch said.

The state police will conduct what they call an "after-action review" of the test, see how it went and that will determine if they will need to have another test, he said.

The first test raised concerns with local agencies that came up on March 23 in Newport City, when Public Safety Commissioner Keith Flynn and Patch met with local emergency responders.

Some of the complaints raised by fire chiefs like Craig Ellam of Derby Line involved how a dispatcher talked over the radio during the test. Patch said that was attributed to an inexperienced dispatcher still in training.

Other problems raised at the meeting pointed to problems that fire departments and others have with their own equipment, Patch said.

Some of their equipment needs repair and adjustments to work properly, he said.

VSP is working with local agencies to help them improve the functioning of their equipment, he said.

But otherwise the first test went well, he said.

Harris said the first test was done on a slower night. He did not hear of problems then.