Grants help ND firefighters get cache of communications equipment

Previously, firefighters sometimes had to make calls to each other or to the Law Enforcement Center using their personal cell phones

The Associated Press via The Bismarck Tribune

JAMESTOWN, N.D. — Although multiple fire departments may fight the same blaze, they can't always communicate with each other, at least not directly.

In the recent chemical spill on Interstate 94 near Cleveland, N.D., for instance, the Jamestown Fire Department Hazardous Materials Team assisted the Medina Fire Department. Even though they were in the same place at the same time, the radios from the two agencies could not communicate directly via radio.

"The two fire departments couldn't talk real easily together because their radios are set up differently," said Jerry Bergquist, Stutsman County emergency manager.

An insecticide called Govern spilled on I-94 during that July 23 incident. The spill caused no injuries but detoured traffic for about seven hours.

"The intent was that everybody would be able to talk to each other easier between fire departments," Bergquist said.

The idea of communicating directly through radios sounds simple, Bergquist said. But without new equipment, the technology wasn't available here, he said. Sometimes firefighters made calls to each other or to the Law Enforcement Center using their personal cell phones.

So the Jamestown Rural Fire Department as well as 11 other rural fire departments and two volunteer ambulance agencies applied for grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Those fire departments qualified for more than $430,000 in grant funding between this year and last. The local match was 5 percent or about $22,000. The money, firefighters say, will pay for communication-enhancing equipment like radios, repeaters and pagers.

"We want to provide the best service that we can for our fire district," said Capt. Brian Paulson of the Jamestown Rural Fire Department.

In all, about 230 responders work at the agencies, which include the fire departments in Carrington, Cleveland and Courtenay, among others as well as the fire departments and ambulance services in Gackle and Medina.

The $450,000 paid for 231 pagers, 23 truck radios, 56 portable hand-held radios and repeaters - devices used to retransmit a signal at a higher power so it can cover longer distances. In the fire departments' cases, it means the various agencies can communicate directly using the repeaters.

The value of the grants exceeds what Jamestown Fire Department is allotted in a given year.

"There's no way the county would be able to pick up that kind of tab," Paulson said.

The JFRD's budget for 2009 was $83,800, according to the Stutsman County Auditor's Office.

To qualify, volunteer firefighters spent evenings and weekends gathering information and paperwork, said Jake Barnard, training officer for JRFD. Volunteer firefighters are paid for responding to fires. They aren't compensated for outside work like repair, maintenance or applying for grants.

"We spent a lot of Saturdays and Sundays down here," Paulson said.

The new equipment is expected to be in use by next summer.

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