LEBANON — Fire and rescue workers are optimistic that an investigation will determine who has interfered with public safety radio communications – and impeded their response to a fire in a mobile home park Saturday.

Fire Chief Skip Wood said Southern Maine Communications, the radio equipment vendor that was monitoring radio traffic during Saturday’s fire, has narrowed down the number of radios that might have been used to jam the transmissions.

“If it continues, I believe they’ll catch him,” Wood said Tuesday.

Public safety radio transmissions have been getting jammed in the area since 2004. Officials believed the problem had stopped after the Lebanon Rescue Department’s assistant chief, Jason Cole, contacted the Federal Communications Commission to report interference that occurred during a medical emergency call on April 22.

Cole said last week that officials from the FCC and another federal agency, which he declined to identify, had installed monitoring devices to locate the source of the jamming. The FCC’s enforcement bureau has used such equipment in its investigations, but it declined to comment Tuesday on the situation in the Lebanon area or its investigations in general.

On Saturday, the interference occurred while emergency crews were responding to a fire at a mobile home park that destroyed one home and damaged two others. Three people were treated for minor injuries at the scene, but no one was hospitalized.

Assistant Fire Chief Dan Roy, who was in charge of the response, said radio traffic between departments and the dispatch center was interrupted for about five minutes, so much of the information had to be repeated and some wasn’t received at all.

Further complicating the situation, a dispatcher from the Sanford Regional Communications Center called the Sanford, Acton and Alfred fire departments to the scene, when closer departments, in Berwick, and Milton and Rochester, N.H., should have been called first for assistance.

Roy said he would have corrected that mistake right away, but didn’t hear the call go out to the wrong departments because of the jamming.

The Rochester department was called to the scene by a Lebanon firefighter who was the first to arrive at the park off Route 202, but its tanker was out of service – something else Roy was unaware of because of the jamming.

“I was looking for that tanker and it wasn’t here,” said Roy, who would have made sure that another tanker was on the road earlier.

As a result, he said, the departments exhausted their water supply three times before more trucks arrived.

Roy said the mobile home at 9 Evergreen Lane, where the fire started, would have been destroyed in any case. Its owner, Jonathan Harlow, who lived there with a roommate, is staying in a nearby hotel, according to neighbors.

Roy said “it’s kind of hard to speculate” whether damage to the other two homes could have been avoided.

“What would be the outcome if we’d been able to hear? I don’t know,” he said.

Pamela Caccialini believes there would have been less damage to her home, where she lives with her husband and 4-year-old grandson. Some of the siding was ruined, and water from the fire hoses blew out a window and damaged the ceilings.

They were put up in a hotel by the Red Cross for three nights, and now plan to stay with neighbors.

“I hope they catch the person, that’s all,” Caccialini said. “We could have been asleep.”

The state Fire Marshal’s Office has not determined the cause of the fire, which spread into pine trees above the park and melted the siding on another home. Neighbors said embers fell from the trees, sparking small fires in piles of pine needles in several yards.

A jammer usually keys a microphone – pressing the talk button – as soon as a firefighter or emergency medical technician provides his or her radio identification code. The mike is sometimes released and re-keyed repeatedly – probably to determine whether the fire and rescue crew is still trying to transmit.

The jamming is repeated until the crews stop trying to transmit, said Jeff Kostis, a radio technician with Southern Maine Communications.

Cole said Tuesday that evidence gathered during the fire will be forwarded to the FCC, but the data collected could take some time to decipher because of the volume of radio traffic at the time.

“The jamming transmission was hitting the tower in Alfred, which means it was coming from a place closer to Alfred than Lebanon,” Cole said. “The problem we are facing is that there were too many people talking at the same time.”

Cole said the interference ended abruptly after the dispatch center broadcast a warning that the person who was generating the jamming signal could face federal charges.

“Using the expertise of our radio vendor and the dispatch center tape, we are optimistic that we can find out who did this,” Cole said.

Although previous interference didn’t occur during emergency situations, the recent incidents have posed a significant threat to public safety. “They’re getting more bold,” said Wood, the fire chief in Lebanon.

If the interference continues, he believes investigators will be able to track down whoever is responsible.

“But if it does continue, it’s hampering us,” he said. “Somebody is going to get hurt sooner or later.”

 

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey contributed to this report.

 

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at 791-6364 or at: [email protected]