GREENFIELD — With help from a federal grant, the county’s fire departments are improving communication among public safety personnel.
Hancock County fire departments received about $750,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program to replace outdated radios at each of the county’s 12 fire stations.
FEMA required applicants to match 10 percent of the grant. The Hancock County Council will chip in $75,000, which will cover the complete cost of the upgrade.
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The departments’ current radio system uses a low frequency, which is a problem because local law enforcement and surrounding counties use high-frequency systems, meaning the agencies can’t communicate directly with one another, said Greenfield Fire Territory Chief James Roberts.
That means police and firefighters working at the same emergency scene — which can sometimes stretch over a large area — have to contact dispatchers to relay messages to one another.
Most of Greenfield’s radios were purchased in 1998 and 1999, and some of the smaller departments’ radios are even older. Roberts said Greenfield’s radios are so old that Motorola, the manufacturer, no longer services them.
“Anytime something goes wrong with them now, it becomes a paperweight,” he said.
Roberts has applied for the grant several times before getting news the county would receive it this year.
The grant covers the purchase of 180 hand-held 800-megahertz radios, 12 base radios for the stations and the installation of needed infrastructure.
Good communication is key to firefighter and public safety, Roberts said, and the current system and radios aren’t ideal for fostering good communication.
Local law enforcement upgraded to 800-megahertz radios about eight years ago. Since then, the fire departments and law enforcement have used the county’s central dispatch center as a middle man to communicate.
Connecting officials through the same radio system will save precious seconds in an emergency. For example, police officers are often first on the scene and are able to provide critical information to medical teams that are on the way. Soon, that information will go directly to those who need it.
Similarly, county departments will be able to communicate with neighboring departments located outside the county.
Buck Creek Fire Department, for example, regularly works with Marion County fire departments. Without the grant, the department wouldn’t have been able to purchase the radios, said Fire Chief Dave Sutherlin.
“Really, we got a gift dropped out of the sky,” he said. “It’s a great thing for us to be able to take advantage of this.”
Originally, plans were for each of the departments to pay a portion of the match needed for the grant, but the county chose to pick up the entire cost.
That’s helpful to smaller departments because coming up with $7,000 to $8,000 would be difficult for them, Roberts said.
The county will pay for the match through funds from food and beverage taxes.
County Councilman Kent Fisk was pleased to hear FEMA would cover 90 percent of the cost.
“This is a great program, and we’re never going to be in a position again to fund this project,” he said at Wednesday’s county council meeting. “(The federal government) has recognized this is a need, and we need to take advantage of it.”
Roberts plans to order the radios in the next few days and expects the new radios will be set up within 30 days of being ordered.
Improving communication will help firefighters do their jobs more effectively, he said, which will help them better serve the community and residents during emergencies. And it will make their jobs easier.
“We have to have a system that works,” he said. “This job is tough enough as it is.”
“Anytime something goes wrong with them now, it becomes a paperweight.”
Greenfield Fire Territory Chief James Roberts, on radios so old the manufacturer no longer services them