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Fire Chiefs Seeking Improved Emergency Radio Coverage

Published: September 11, 2017

Sandy Hook Volunteer Fire & Rescue Company Chief Bill Halstead is seeking to have the Board of Fire Commissioners (BFC) push for improved emergency radio reception in certain areas where the topography creates “dead zones,” preventing reliable radio communications between the town’s radio dispatch center and emergency staff in the field while on emergency calls.

Mr Halstead brought his longstanding concerns on the matter to the BFC at a recent session, saying that a lack of reliable communications during emergencies could have dire consequences.

Mr Halstead said he wants the full BFC to back a drive for improved radio reception.

As a result, BFC Chairman Rob Manna plans to seek formal support on the issue from the director of emergency communications, the ambulance corps, the police chief, and the town highway department, according to BFC records.

Two areas in town where radio communications are difficult are the eastern section of the Sandy Hook fire district and the northern section of the Hook & Ladder fire district. The town has five fire districts. The other districts are Dodgingtown, Hawleyville, and Botsford.

Chief Halstead said that the town has permission from the owner of a cell tower off Dinglebrook Lane to install radio communications gear there, which would improve the radio reception problem in the northern section of the Hook & Ladder fire district.

In 2009, the Connecticut Siting Council approved a 150-foot-tall cell tower for Dinglebrook Lane, near the Brookfield town line. As part of the tower’s approval, the tower’s owner agreed to provide free mounting space on the tower for municipal emergency communications.

Although the town has the right to mount gear on the tower, the town would need to acquire and install the needed communications equipment there.

About two years ago, it was estimated that about $300,000 would be needed to equip two sites to resolve the radio reception problems in the two areas with radio coverage problems, Chief Halstead said.

To improve reception in the eastern section of the Sandy Hook fire district, radio equipment might be installed on existing cell towers in either Oxford or Monroe, Chief Halstead said.

Chief Halstead recalled two recent fire calls during which Sandy Hook firefighters had difficulty communicating by radio with the Newtown Emergency Communications Center at 3 Main Street.

The five volunteer fire companies, along with Newtown Volunteer Ambulance Corps and Newtown Underwater Search And Rescue all use the same analog radio frequency. The police use a separate encrypted digital frequency.

Chief Halstead said that when radio reception fails, volunteer firefighters use cellphones to communicate with the dispatch center, but added that cellphones are not as effective as two-way radio communications.

“It could a life or death situation,” he said of the need for reliable communications.

“We’ve got to start doing something,” he said, adding that cellphone communications simply are not good enough for emergency situations. Resolving the radio problem, however, is not simple, he said. “It’s going to take time,” he added.

Improved radio communications serve to protect the public, firefighters, ambulance staff, and police, he said.

Hook & Ladder Fire Chief Chris Ward said, “The radio communications [reception] issue in portions of all the fire districts has been ongoing for years for years… We, the combined fire chiefs, hope the new effort of Chief Halstead results in something positive… Newtown Hook & Ladder is strongly supporting Chief Halstead’s initiative and hopes the town does, as well.”

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s reports on the causes of firefighter injuries and deaths list issues with radio communications as a common theme, Chief Ward said.

Maureen Will, town director of emergency communications, said that in order to have funding available for improved emergency radio communications, town officials would need to designate it in the town’s Capital Improvement Plan. Ms Will noted that for the 2020-21 fiscal year, $1,775,000 is designated for a radio system upgrade.

That money, however, does not include funds for improving radio reception in the two “dead zones,” she said.

On September 7, Ms Will estimated that between $200,000 and $300,000 would be needed to resolve the two “dead zone” reception problems. Radio wave propagation studies have been done, specifying the geographical areas that have reception problems, she noted.

Resolving those problems could take several years, she said.

Ms Will also said she is developing some new cost estimates on the price to improve emergency radio coverage in the areas with reception problems.

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