Commissioners agree to bump radio budget

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By Meg Olson

A new study that gives a clear picture of the communications challenges faced by members of the local fire department has prompted fire commissioners to raise the limit on a spending fix.

At their March 11 meeting fire commissioners unanimously approved increasing fire chief Christopher Carleton’s spending authority for communications improvements from $50,000 to $70,000. “It’s not a small amount of money and we do have it in our capital reserves, but if we don’t have communications we don’t have emergency services.”

The recent radio study, prepared by Palidor radio communications consultants for NW Communications, compared reception on the Point under the current system, in which signals come from the top of Galbraith Mountain to pagers and radios used by department members, to the proposed new system that would put antennas on the Whidbey Telecom tower.

A series of graphics showed poor coverage in red and yellow, and good coverage in green.

With Point Roberts firefighters’ portable radios sending a signal to dispatchers through the Galbraith site, three quarters of Point Roberts came up red or yellow, which Carleton called “basically dead spots.” Carleton said department members on scene at an emergency either will not reach dispatchers or “if we do, they won’t understand us,” hampering requests for backup, calls for a helicopter and consultations with physicians.

The more powerful radios in the department vehicles have a better chance of clear communications, but coverage on the northwest side of the Point is still poor.

With a signal from dispatch to activate firefighters’ pagers coming through the Galbraith site, the picture was a little better, but not good, with half the Point red or yellow. “Any time we have volunteers in those areas we’ll have a high probability of missing those pages,” Carleton said.

When signals were sent from test antennas taken to the top of the Whidbey Telephone tower in Point Roberts, “we have no coverage loss,” Carleton said. “All of Point Roberts is green.”

Carleton is now working on agreements to allow Point Roberts to effectively create its own communications system working with a series of other agencies. “Our goal will be to microwave over to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in Blaine. That gets microwaved to Sumas Mountain, then to Washington State Patrol where it goes by fiber optic to Prospect dispatch, which is for fire and emergency medical services. This all happens in milliseconds,” he said.

Timing will depend on how long it takes to get those agreements in place. “This is all on paper. We haven’t purchased any equipment; all we’ve paid for is the studies,” which cost $2,000, Carleton said, adding, “The first domino is the agreement with DHS and that could take months.” Initial discussions with DHS have been positive, he said.

The system as designed is projected to cost $50,000, but an additional $12,000 is needed to add equipment in the dispatch center that will be dedicated to the Point Roberts system. “That was an unexpected cost,” Carleton said. Another unexpected cost could come if an agreement cannot be reached with DHS, in which case a larger and more expensive microwave dish would be needed, pushing project costs up to $90,000.

While commissioners were unanimous in supporting an increase in the project budget, they also asked Carleton to scale back on other proposed expenditures, like added security for the Benson Road fire station. “If it’s station security versus radios, we have to go with radios,” said Stan Riffle. Carleton agreed. “Station security is off my radar. This is my top priority.”

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