Firefighters take communication problem to county

By By BEN RAYMOND LODE / Niles Daily Star
NILES -- City of Niles and Township firefighters were among the Berrien County firefighters and fire chiefs who surprised Berrien County's Board of Commissioners at the County Commissioners meeting in St. Joseph Thursday morning.
The well-dressed firefighters came before the board to ask for assistance with what they for a long time have experienced as very serious communication problems for the county's firefighters.
Bruce Stover, Berrien Springs Oronoko fire chief and president of the Berrien County Fire Chiefs Association, presented a resolution supported by the 700-plus members of the Berrien County Firefighters Association, which includes the Niles City and Township fire departments.
In his presentation, Stover listed several points to illustrate some of the problems the county's fire fighters face during times of emergency.
They include having only one VHF frequency to communicate to and from dispatch and only one VHF frequency to use as fire grounds, or scene operations.
Twenty-seven fire departments operate on those frequencies, plus St. Joseph County, Ind., Ottawa County and county ambulances, which means dispatchers and fire departments have to wait their turn to communicate because of overuse.
Stover said dispatchers also turn down the fire frequency because of all the interference.
And, because of all the traffic, all 27 fire departments have to make multiple calls to dispatch to advise them of additional needs of the current situation, he said.
Stover also added that if the dispatch center is dispatching multiple departments for a large fire or incident, no one can talk to each other until all dispatching is completed.
According to a quote by Hi-Tech/SMR Communications in Berrien Springs, the Association's solution would cost the county a total of $97,795.00, which would be a minimal outlay compared to the cost of equipping the county's fire departments with 800 MHz radios.
Chief Larry Lamb, Niles City Fire Department, said it has been estimated equipping the county's firefighters with 800 MHz radios, which is currently used by the State Police and is very good for police services and for interoperability between Fire Police and Emergency Management Services, would cost the county $1.8 million.
However, the 800 Mhz radio's don't solve the fire department's current communication problems.
According to Stover's presentation, 800 Mhz radios have not been proven to be as reliable as first stated and there have been serious problems in the New Buffalo area, who currently operate with 800 MHz radios.
In addition, 800 Mhz radios apparently have problems working efficiently inside buildings, do not like to be horizontal, are not intrinsically safe and can be prone to exploding in certain situations, as well as being susceptible to water damage.
However, Stover did say two to three 800 Mhz radios are needed for the command and safety officers to allow interoperability between fire, police and Emergency Management Services.
He said the Association's solution would include using two radio frequencies that can be used by fire departments and the dispatchers.
He said the Association has also applied for licenses for four additional frequencies that will be used only by fire departments for fire ground operations.
The Berrien County 911 committee has authorized the paying of the licensing fee for the first two frequencies.
Larry Clymer, chairman of the county's administration committee, was caught by surprise to see so many fire fighters at Thursday's meeting.
Although he recommended the county fire fighters should have approached the 911 Committee and asked them for technical advice before having the 911 Committee bring the proposal to the board, he agrees communication is a problem.
But he also said communication is a universal problem.
He mentioned communication problems experienced during the September 11 attacks, the mass collisions on I-94 this winter caused by severe snow fall and the recent civil disturbance in Benton Harbor to illustrate how important it is for police fire and emergency services to be able to communicate efficiently.
He is sure something will be done to address the communication issue brought forward by the county fire fighters.
Donald Gast, an administration committee commissioner, said there has been done a lot of things to improve on communication for fire and police departments in the county.
But he also said communication can get better.
Richard Bartz, a personnel and human services committee commissioner said there have been lots of communication studies done in the county over the last two years.
Chief Craig Lear, Niles Township Fire Department, said he thinks the commissioners are on board with the fire fighters.
He stresses the importance of finding a solution to solve the problems the county's fire departments experience.

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