RAY BROOK - Forest rangers and other state Department of Environmental Conservation employees in the Adirondacks believe that relying on a central dispatch system in Albany puts them and the public at risk, according to documents obtained by the Enterprise.
"Based on what is being demonstrated, central dispatch has no business being the life link for the rangers in the field," forest ranger Lt. John Solan wrote in a Feb. 1 email. "We have enough examples of the inability of central dispatch to function effectively. We are very fortunate to not have examples of how central has fallen short in a true emergency. There are numerous examples of routine dispatch failures, but so far we have been lucky."
The DEC is currently in the process of transferring dispatching responsibilities from its Region 5 headquarters in Ray Brook to a central dispatch center in Albany, although the DEC softened its stance on the move when questioned about it Thursday and Friday.
The Enterprise has obtained documents detailing a pattern of failure with the central dispatch system, at least in the eyes of some Adirondack DEC staff.
In the month of April alone, DEC records show that its employees working in 10 Adirondack counties had at least 70 documented problems with Albany dispatch. Fifteen of those incidents were in Essex County, and 11 were in Franklin County.
The statewide centralized dispatch service in Albany utilizes Radio Over Internet Technology. The move has taken place in stages over several years. In February, DEC eliminated four Ray Brook dispatchers and shut down its 24-hour dispatching here.
The three remaining Ray Brook dispatchers now operate from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week. They currently serve as backup for Albany after regular business hours and in some cases during regular hours.
The plan is to eliminate the three remaining dispatching positions and close the Ray Brook dispatching office if the agency can get central dispatching working properly, DEC spokeswoman Lori Severino said Friday from Albany. Once all the dispatchers are removed from Ray Brook, most radio communications and calls from the public would have to go through Albany. In some cases, Severino added, Adirondack calls would be transferred from Albany to Ray Brook.
Moving the dispatching services has received strong resistance from Capt. John Streiff, who oversees forest ranger operations for Region 5, based in Ray Brook.
"I understand (central dispatch) is here to stay, but in light of the past three months, I cannot see how (central dispatch) can handle the entire state," Streiff wrote in an internal email on May 11. "I hope you will agree and work with me to keep both (central dispatch) and (Ray Brook) working together for our Agency and our safety."
Streiff was writing to Maj. Jill Kaufman, who is in DEC's Division of Law Enforcement. He referred to the last three months because his forest rangers have had problems communicating with dispatchers in Albany. This has, in turn, caused many forest rangers to lose confidence in the system and believe that it is putting their safety and the public's at risk.
Some of the problems Streiff cited were that central dispatch was handling too much radio traffic and that Albany dispatchers aren't familiar with Adirondack operations and the local terrain. He also said that too much traffic on one tower knocked out power on DEC's radio tower on Whiteface Mountain during the flooding emergencies in April. In the past, he said, this wouldn't have happened because an additional tower was used under the old system.
DEC's assistant director of law enforcement, Steven R. Gerould, who is in charge of the dispatching changes and is based in Albany, told the Enterprise Thursday that Ray Brook dispatching would not be shut down if the problems persist. A DEC employee said Thursday that Ray Brook had not heard that before.
"It is my understanding that executive has stated that if we cannot achieve the same level of service that they can already get to Ray Brook, that there is no mandate to close Ray Brook down," Gerould said. "We're doing this as a cost-saving measure, but we're not going to do it at the expense of our employees' safety."
Forest rangers rely on dispatch for routine check-ins and during wildland fire operations, search-and-rescue missions and law enforcement operations. Many Adirondack forest rangers believe these operations are hindered by the new central dispatch system.
An email to Solan from Anthony Goetke detailed an enforcement stop that took place on Feb. 5 with fellow forest ranger Suzanne Hitt. The pair had pulled over several snowmobilers. Goetke said he had "severe problems" communicating with central dispatch during this stop.
"As you know, this is a remote location, and any backup (from any agency is hours away), even with good communication.
"During field operations such as this, it is my belief that the longer things take, the more they are apt to go bad. I am sure it was quite obvious to these individuals that we had communication issues. A very disconcerting feeling as the clock continues to tick."
In an email in late February regarding a communication with dispatch, forest ranger Julie Harjung described how Albany's central dispatching system failed on a routine check-in from Raquette Falls, the location of an interior caretaker's cabin 6 miles from any road. She was able to contact Ray Brook.
"This test is to me a great indicator that there is a huge officer safety issue with only having the central dispatch," Harjung wrote. "The central dispatch is inadequate and can not be relied on to support field staff or officers in the remote location."
Forest rangers are only one group that uses the dispatch system in the Adirondacks. In the summer, there are numerous seasonal DEC employees who also use the system, including interior caretakers, campground workers, assistant forest rangers, summit stewards and fire tower interpreters. The DEC has also recently hired 24 college-age backcountry stewards for the summer, this weekend through Labor Day.
In January, DEC forester Kristofer Alberga, who oversees the High Peaks, wrote a scathing letter to other DEC employees regarding the change in dispatching. He called the transition process "closed door" in nature and said the DEC was trading a reliable system for one that has not proven to be reliable.
"The end result is placing our represented members at great danger while working in the field," Alberga said. "Thus far, it appears the only input into the changes into the radio system are from a small sequestered group of individuals that are focused on 'taking care of their own,' often at the detriment of the larger organization."
Other problems that have occurred as a result of the switch to a central dispatch include a delay in a search-and-rescue for two elderly skiers at Garnett Hill Ski Lodge in Warren County. During the search, forest ranger Steve Ovitt called Albany for assistance but didn't receive help. In response, Solan stepped in from Ray Brook to communicate with Ovitt.
Albany dispatchers have also repeatedly mistaken Adirondack place names. Records show Lake Colden being marked down as Lake Holden, the AuSable Club being called AuSable Park and Saranac Lake being referred to as Saranac, which is a separate community 30 miles away.
In one incident in April, forest ranger Pete Evans checked in with central dispatch, letting them know he was on Floodwood Road in the town of Santa Clara, checking on recreational activity in an area that is popular with paddlers and fisherman.
But Albany dispatchers recorded him being on Floodburg Road in the town of Flanders Claire (not a real place), checking for suspicious activity. Had Evans encountered problems while in the field or not returned, finding him may have proved difficult or at least been delayed.
In an email this February, Solan seriously criticized the Albany dispatchers for their lack of knowledge of Adirondack geography. He referred to a case in which an Albany dispatcher was working on a case involving an overdue hiker on Santanoni Peak in the southern High Peaks.
"When central called me, the dispatcher could not pronounce the name of the mountain the person was hiking," Solan said. "I eventually was able to figure out the dispatcher was talking about Santanoni Mountain and advised them to dispatch Ranger Jeffrey."
Some rangers refer to dispatchers as their lifeline. Gerould stated in an email on Nov. 19, 2010, to Col. Andrew T. Jacob, assistant division director of the forest rangers, that one of the reasons to change to this form of dispatching was to protect more officers.
In his email, Gerould referred to the death of Pennsylvania Wildlife Conservation Officer David Lynn Grove, who was shot by poachers while on duty last fall.
"The ability to provide the plate number of the vehicle being stopped by Officer Grove to his dispatch is the only reason they were able to apprehend his assailant as quickly as they did," Gerould wrote. "Had his wounds been less significant, dispatch knowing his location may have saved his life."
Talking to the Enterprise Thursday, Gerould downplayed problems with the transition from Ray Brook to Albany. He said this was a test period for the move and that problems were expected in the Adirondacks.
"The only real problems we're having are in Region 5," Gerould said. "The rest of the state's been going very smoothly, and Region 5's issues are really related to the topography and our lack of operations staff."
Gerould blamed the problems on only having one radio technician in Region 5 and the remote location of many of the towers. He said problems with the system were expected in the Adirondacks.
"There's a lot of fear out there that we are just going to go in and take Ray Brook away from the North Country without insuring that they have an adequate replacement system, and that's just not true," he said.
As of now, many Ray Brook forest rangers lack confidence that central dispatch will work and would prefer to rely on local dispatchers with a system that has proven to work. Forest ranger Scott VanLaer expressed this in a March email to Streiff after failed communications with Albany.
"The new dispatch procedures have been proven to be a complete failure and no longer require additional testing," VanLaer wrote. "There is zero or near zero ability to contact central on (the) DLE Whiteface (tower) from any location in the High Peaks Wilderness. It seems to me you might as well give central dispatch tin cans with strings attached and it will be just as effective."
Contact Mike Lynch at 891-2600 ext. 28 or firstname.lastname@example.org.