BUCKHANNON - Members of the Upshur County Firefighters Association on Thursday appealed to the Upshur County Commission for money to purchase hand-held digital radios that they say will improve interdepartmental communication and enhance firefighter safety.
As budget season approaches, the association asked the commission to allocate $38,000 in its 2014-2015 budget for the purchase of 42 digital/interoperable radios - six of which would be distributed to each of the county's seven fire departments.
Speaking on behalf of the association, Buckhannon Fire Chief Mitch Tacy said the hand-held radios would bolster firefighter safety by allowing firefighters from different county departments at the scene of the same emergency to better communicate with one another.
That's because the digital radios would operate on a digital radio system, rather than the county's high-band or low-band radio frequencies. Currently, a high volume of traffic on the high-band and low-band frequencies is impeding interdepartmental communication, which is critical to maintaining a safe work environment for firefighters, Tacy said.
"Part of the problem we have is due to the increased number of calls and required number of agencies required to respond to the same call," Tacy said. "Our fire radio system is now unsafe. It is becoming impossible for our firefighters operating on the interior of a structure to maintain radio communication (with first responders outside the structure)."
At the scene of a structure fire or other emergency, the digital radios would enable both the incident commander - usually a fire chief - and the Upshur County Communications Center to monitor radio traffic.
"The problem and the reason we want these radios is because we also want the Comm Center to be able to monitor them," Tacy said. "That's important because the first few minutes of a fire ground operation are the most critical. That's the point when our firefighters enter a building and as an incident commander, you have to make a decision - you either let those guys stay in there and fight it out or you say, 'these guys are getting it handed to them, we've got to get them out of the building.'"
But because "organized chaos" often ensues at the scene of a structure fire, incident commanders may miss a critical cry for help, Tacy said.
"Statistics show that most interior 'mayday' situations are heard by dispatch centers and not fire ground personnel," he said.
Digital radios may be outfitted with a mayday function that allows firefighters in distress to push a button that activates a tone notifying individuals monitoring the digital radio system that an emergency situation has occurred, Tacy said.
"These radios can also be equipped with a function that can allow an incident commander to activate an activation tone that would alert all interior firefighters to evacuate the building they are in," he added. Digital radios are "an immediate fix to the dangerous situation we have" in Upshur County, Tacy said.
Commission President JC Raffety said that although the county has less money in its budget with which to work, it's important to prioritize public safety.
"Severance tax is down, so we will be dealing with a leaner budget," Raffety said, "but I am confident that public safety is a very, very important aspect."
"What you're describing in terms of lack of interdepartmental communication was evident during 9/11 when the police departments, fire departments and emergency crews could not communicate with each other at that scene," Raffety added.
Upshur County Firefighters Association President and Adrian Volunteer Fire Chief Bennie Nazelrod, who also appeared with Tacy, emphasized that the association's plan to utilize the digital radios would prevent such communication breakdowns.
"This is going to enable all fire departments, if they have to come together, to communicate," Nazelrod remarked, "and that being said, if there's a big incident and we need to communicate with the sheriff's department, EMS or whatever, we can all talk on one radio and do the same thing."
Contact Katie Kuba by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter at IMT-Kuba.