BUCKHANNON - Communication in the United States National Radio Quiet Zone is tricky business.
The West Virginia State Interoperable Radio Network (WV-SIRN) provides the best communication in the 13,000-square-mile zone that protects the National Radio Astronomy Observatory in Green Bank and the Sugar Grove Research Facility, said James T. Farrell, public information officer and administrative assistant with the Upshur County Office of Emergency Management.
"Communication for everybody here is a little different. You have to get special permission for radio use. It's a long and difficult process. Working with Green Bank (WV-SIRN) is the best coverage for this area," he said.
On top of being in a unique area for radio communication, fire departments in Upshur County, like those everywhere, must keep up with the latest technology.
This week, firefighters from around the county received training on the use of new portable two-way radios equipped with the latest technology, said Jim Farry, director of the Office of Emergency Management.
The West Virginia Department of Military Affairs and Public Safety, the Homeland Security State Administrative Agency and the Upshur County Office of Emergency Management recently worked together to obtain a Homeland Security grant to purchase the radios.
Thanks to the new radios, coupled with the State Interoperable Radio Network, firefighters will be able to better communicate in the county and around the state, Farry said.
"There are a lot of dead spots in the county because of the terrain. With this system, there aren't many places they can't get out of," he said.
Buckhannon Fire Chief Mitch Tacy said his department was happy to receive the equipment.
"It's not every day you can walk into a room and get $50,000 worth of free radios," he said.
While Upshur County first responders have been field testing a small number of the radios over the past four years, the latest grant adds more than 50 radios to all seven fire departments in the county, Farrell said. This is the most the Office of Emergency Management has purchased at one time.
The radios cost just under $1,000 each, including accessories, Farrell said.
Eventually, firefighters will be equipped with radio alert systems they can engage if they find themselves in serious trouble on a call, Adrian Fire Chief Bernie Nazelrod said.
"They will be able to hit a button and alert everyone," he said. "We're working toward the safety of the firefighters and the community. This is going to be a plus."
The new radios will not solve all communication problems, Farrell said. The Office of Emergency Management is encouraging fire departments to maintain and upgrade the equipment they were using before, Farrell said. This provides a backup system, should the primary system fail, he said.
These new radios are another step on a longer path, Farry said.
"I think this is just the beginning of long-term improvements," he said. "It's been a long time in the making."
The future of radio communication is just around the corner, Farrell said. It won't be long before new technology hits the market, he said.
"The D-Block is a block of frequencies on the edge of television and cell phones. There's been a bit of a fight over who can use them," Farrell said. "Ever since the cell phone came out, along with other high-tech equipment, there's been a sudden frequency grab that never existed before."
The technology to utilize D-Block frequencies "isn't out there yet," Farrell said. But fire departments and other emergency response agencies should be setting aside funds for when the technology is available, he said.