Officials: Radio funds not for volunteer fire departments

They found they didn't have the statutory authority to use county funds to buy and donate items to a non-government entity

Houston Chronicle

FORT BEND COUNTY, Texas — As Fort Bend County updates its emergency response radio system, officials are planning to confer this week to figure out how - and whether - they can buy radio equipment for the county's volunteer fire departments.

A request from the county's purchasing agent for $416,000 to buy radio equipment for the volunteer firefighters was pulled from the county commissioners' agenda last week. Officials found they didn't have the statutory authority to use county funds to buy and donate items to a non-government entity, Purchasing Agent Gilbert Jalomo said.

The switch-up highlights the complexity of governing a growing county made up of a patchwork of cities and unincorporated areas.

There are 21 fire departments in Fort Bend County run by cities, emergency service districts or volunteers, Fire Marshal Mark Flathouse said.

The Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office oversees dispatch to some of those departments, while the fire marshal handles the contractual agreements, Flathouse said.

Volunteer departments may not have financing to buy new equipment as the county upgrades its system, Flathouse said. Efforts to reach leaders at several volunteer departments were unsuccessful Tuesday.

The volunteer departments aren't the only ones facing a need to change over. Fort Bend County began to transition from an analog to a digital system because they share a system with Harris County, which is now fully digital, said Capt. Matt Carter, who oversees the emergency operations and communications division for the Fort Bend County Sheriff's Office.

"It isn't necessarily us, the Sheriff's Office, forcing anyone's hand," Carter said. "We're having to maintain compatibility with other agencies ourselves."

Fort Bend County will be able to simulcast, meaning they can still provide dispatch service for personnel using either kind of radio by tricking the system into accepting both types of signals, Carter said, but Harris County is moving away from that technique.

"STARTING 2016, ANALOG RADIOS WILL NO LONGER WORK ON OUR RADIO SYSTEM," says a notice on the Harris County Information Technology Center, Radio Services website.To get new radios to the volunteer departments, Fort Bend is looking at the possibility of buying the radios and loaning them out while keeping them on the county inventory, Jalomo said. Another option being analyzed is to give the departments money.

"These won't be obsolete radios," County Judge Robert Hebert said during last week's county commissioners meeting. "These will be brand new if we can figure out how to do it."

The fire marshal's express goal is to be sure the volunteers have the best equipment they can get to get the 911 call.

"This is the last piece of the puzzle to make sure everybody can speak to each other out there," he said.

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