Fire departments, county split cost for new radios

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HANCOCK COUNTY — Officials with five area fire departments will be able to upgrade their truck-mounted radios sooner than expected thanks to an agreement with the Hancock County Council.

The county recently agreed to split the cost, approximately $80,000, with the Buck Creek Township Fire Department and volunteer departments in Charlottesville, Wilkinson, Fortville and McCordsville to purchase 25 radios that mount in fire vehicles. The 800 MHz radios will allow fire departments to communicate better with other county public safety agencies, said Dave Sutherlin, fire chief for Buck Creek.

The council will spend about $40,000 from the county’s food and beverage tax fund for the radios.

Charlottesville and Wilkinson will each receive four radios; Buck Creek will receive six; and Vernon Township’s departments in McCordsville and Fortville will share 11, said John Jokantas, director of communications at the Hancock County 911 Center. Each radio costs $3,000 to $4,000.

Last year, the Green Township and Shirley volunteer fire departments purchased new high-band radios for their vehicles when the county agreed to pay for the devices from the food and beverage fund.

Sutherlin said the 50-50 cost split with the county helped out Buck Creek Township “big time.” The fire department has 21 career firefighters and 20 volunteers.

“That’s moving us up probably three years ahead of schedule for radios for us,” he said. “It’s definitely a huge plus for us.”

County fire departments have been slowly transitioning to high-band 800 MHz radios for several years, replacing outdated low-band devices, Sutherlin said. Each Hancock County fire department in 2015 received handheld high-band radios through a federal grant and a local match from the county.

Sutherlin said Buck Creek purchased 18 radios from the 2015 grant and bought another 18 radios from a different grant more than a decade ago. He said while handhelds have greatly benefited the department, the batteries die quickly when firefighters use them in both the vehicle and on location. Having radios mounted in vehicles will put less strain on the handhelds, Sutherlin added.

Matt Decker, fire chief in Wilkinson, said it’s difficult for volunteer fire departments with small budgets to upgrade equipment as often as they’d like. Without the assistance from the county council, Decker said, it would’ve taken the fire department of 19 volunteers a few extra years to purchase four radios.

Vernon Township Trustee Florence May agreed. The township, which consists of two volunteer fire departments in McCordsville and Fortville, wouldn’t have been able to purchase all 11, May said, because of an ongoing $4.25 million construction project of a new fire station.

The northern Hancock County township is building the 14,000 square-foot facility on Vitality Drive in Fortville. The Fortville-Vernon Township Volunteer Fire Department will move into the new station when it opens in June. Seals Ambulance, the township’s ambulance provider, will operate out of the new station as well.

May said she was “pleasantly surprised” after recently learning of the county council’s decision.

Jokantas said he anticipates the radios to get installed in May.

The upgrades will also eliminate annual costs for the 911 center, Jokantas said. The county uses its low frequency radio system to only tone fire department pagers, but it costs the county $1,000 a month for phone lines that connect to four county “receive sites” for the low-band radio system, Jokantas said. A receive site, he said, sends the radio traffic back to the 911 center.

Jokantas said the equipment at the sites was outdated and would’ve needed replaced in the next few years, costing about $60,000. But since all of the departments will now only use higher frequency radios, he said there’s no need to keep those sites operational and keep paying $12,000 a year. The county will still use the frequency to tone pagers, he added, but that’s just maintained at the 911 center and not at the four receive sites. He estimates it will save the county $120,000 over five years.

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The Hancock County Council agreed to split the $80,000 cost with area fire departments to purchase 25 high-frequency radios that will be mounted in vehicles. Here’s the breakdown on the number of radios for each department.

Buck Creek Township Fire Department — 6

Fortville-Vernon Township and McCordsville volunteer fire departments — 11

Charlottesville Volunteer Fire Department — 4

Wilkinson Volunteer Fire Department — 4

Source: Hancock County 911

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