Mont. first responders seek $1M portable radio upgrade

Problems with portable communications between firefighters, police and emergency services personnel are getting worse and becoming more frequent


Mike Smith
The Montana Standard, Butte

BUTTE, Mont. — A Butte-Silver Bow firefighter was alone in the basement of a burning building when he became separated from the hose line. It was dark and smoky but when he called for help on his handheld radio, no other firefighters could hear his mayday.

In the parking lot of Lydia’s restaurant on the outskirts of town, a man started fighting with a lone Butte police officer. He called for backup on his portable radio but nobody could understand what he was saying.

Sheriff Ed Lester and Butte-Silver Bow Fire Chief Jeff Miller say the 50-watt or 100-watt radios in police and fire vehicles work fine, but the portables needed in the field are increasingly hit-and-miss, especially inside buildings. (Photo/Pixabay)
Sheriff Ed Lester and Butte-Silver Bow Fire Chief Jeff Miller say the 50-watt or 100-watt radios in police and fire vehicles work fine, but the portables needed in the field are increasingly hit-and-miss, especially inside buildings. (Photo/Pixabay)

Both incidents ended without serious injury, but problems with portable communications between firefighters, police and other first responders in urban Butte are getting worse and becoming more frequent.

Sheriff Ed Lester and Butte-Silver Bow Fire Chief Jeff Miller say the 50-watt or 100-watt radios in police and fire vehicles work fine, but the portables needed in the field are increasingly hit-and-miss, especially inside buildings.

If there was a fire or mass shooting at a school or Walmart, as an example, police and firefighters might not be able to talk to each other from opposite sides of the building or to anyone outside.

“If we have an interior firefighting crew and they are unable to communicate with either their second interior crew or the incident commander who is outside, that is a problem,” Miller said. “Our worry isn’t that you can’t talk from 5 miles away. Our issues are within less than 100 yards away most of the time.”

There’s a fix, but it’s costly.

Getting new, more powerful 800-megahertz portables under a new system for all police officers, most paid firefighters and all of the volunteer fire departments in Butte-Silver Bow County would cost taxpayers just over $1 million, officials say.

That’s with a stand-alone system that would enhance communications just within the county. Getting portables that hook into a digital “trunked” system that covers much of Montana would cost more.

The price tag would nearly triple when you add other needed upgrades, including two new radio towers and an enhanced 911 system.

Not counting multimillion-dollar projects OK’d by voters, the radios alone would be one of the biggest-ticket capital requests in recent years.

Butte-Silver Bow Budget Director Danette Gleason and Chief Executive Dave Palmer say in all likelihood, the county would have to finance them over a period of years. But they’re looking at the next county budget to get that started.

“They have been talking about this for quite some time,” Palmer said. “Where they don’t get coverage is a real concern and it’s getting worse. I think there is a need, definitely, but it’s a big ask.”

Emergency officials know that, but say this about way more than improving efficiency.

“Our whole goal is to make sure that we can respond to any area … and make sure those who are responding go home to their families at night,” said Dan Dennehy, the county’s emergency management director.

WHAT’S WRONG?

It took a long time to diagnose the problem.

“We started noticing that some days they (portable radios) would work, some days they wouldn’t work,” Lester said. “We would go out to the same location where there was a problem and all of a sudden they would be fine.”

They tried moving a repeater — a receiver that captures radio signals, magnifies them and instantly broadcasts them out again — from the top of the Law Enforcement building to the top of the Bell Diamond headframe on the Hill.

That didn’t improve anything so they moved it to the top of the Emergency Operations Center off of Wynne Avenue on the Flat. That didn’t help either.

“We started thinking, maybe it’s not the radios that are the issue,” Lester said.

Turns out they are an issue but not the only one.

The primary culprit is what’s called a noise floor — all the unwanted electrical signals that interfere with conventional VHF radio transmissions. They come from computers and other electronics, lights and motors, and increasingly now, from Wi-Fi and cell phones.

“What we have is all these electronics concentrated in this bowl (valley) here and it interferes with our radios,” Lester said. “Sometimes it just sounds like static.”

Police and firefighters in Butte have been using VHF (very high frequency) radios since the late 1980s and with help from a federal grant, all of the hand-held units were replaced about a dozen years ago. Before VHF, Miller said, they used standard low-band radios.

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©2019 The Montana Standard (Butte, Mont.)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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