Firemen looking for clear signal on radios As county communications upgrade nears, Pioneer seeks flexibility with borough funding; council wants more info

By on July 2, 2013

By:

GARY P. KLINGER Review Correspondent

, Staff Writer

Members of Ephrata Borough Council were talking directly to one another in hopes of working out ways in which the volunteers at the Pioneer Fire Company can talk with others in the near future.

Each year, council sets aside $25,000 each for both the Pioneer and Lincoln fire companies for use on fire trucks. But this year, leaders from Pioneer Fire Company have approached council with the idea of allowing them to use that $25,000 for a one-time purchase of new radio equipment.

That, as part of the upcoming county-wide emergency radio system change-over, would help to defray the considerable costs associated with the upgrade locally.

Talk about the proposed upgrade has been on-going for the past several years, as state and local leaders try to hash out what exactly such a new radio system should be equipped to do. In short, the new radio system will significantly improve the ability of all emergency service personnel to communicate across municipal and service lines. That would mean that it would be easier for police, fire and emergency crews to communicate across all levels of the spectrum and across the county. Under the previous system, each level of emergency service provider has their own system and must often rely on county dispatch to communicate, slowing down response times and adding extra layers of communication that could potentially have real costs in lost property and lives.

Contacted Tuesday morning, Pioneer President Jim Kiefer said this is just a contingency plan.

"We are reluctant to use truck fund money because you need to look down the road," Kiefer said. "We asked for this one time only (request) if needed. We are not committing to using – it’s a contingency plan. We just want to look at (options) so we are not caught in a bind."

The timing of the county changeover isn’t on the side of the local company either as they just replaced aging and non-functioning radios five years ago.

Kiefer estimates the county-wide change could come by August of 2014 but that the radios would likely need to be purchased prior to that.

Council’s Public Safety Committee was initially indicating a wide level of support for the request. And that support yet remains even after Monday night’s meeting. What has slowed, however, is the committee’s willingness to suggest adoption of the request at next Monday’s voting session.

In presenting the idea to council, chairman Bob Good readily admitted that leaders from Pioneer had not yet finalized the details of how many of which radios would be needed. He explained that while those details were yet to be finalized, he understood the initial request by Pioneer was more to test the willingness of council to allow those funds to be used for radios instead of truck needs, as designated by the budget process. Understanding this, Good was initially less concerned about all the details being firmly set, because he recognized that if council was not ultimately willing to allow this use of the funds, Pioneer would be in a position of having to secure the needed funds elsewhere.

And at this point, it is not a question of whether or not Pioneer will need to upgrade radios or not. All such emergency service crews across the county will be forced to do so as part of the upgrade process, thus creating an extra layer of burden on volunteer-based organizations to raise the funds.

"They were not quite sure of some things," said Good, "But the committee felt it was reasonable to allow this."

It was council president Dale Hertzog who pressed members to get more information before moving forward.

"I’d like to know more about how many radios, the cost per radios and the total cost of the purchase," noted Hertzog. "Will this be reported back? At this point there is no definitive answer on how many, what kinds and the costs per individual unit because that information was not provided. It’s not that they would not be forthcoming. I understand that they don’t have that all figured out yet. It’s more a matter of accountability. I would appreciate it if we could ask that of Pioneer."

Hertzog also questioned the committee if it had fielded any similar requests from Lincoln Fire Company. To date, no such requests have been made, but councilman Good did say the nature of the Pioneer purchase may in fact be somewhat different from that of Lincoln. Good explained that Lincoln was looking to purchase radios for officers and top tier leadership, whereas Pioneer likes to also have truck commanders and even lead front line firefighters equipped with radios.

"As a member of the committee, I know Chief Harvey has reached out to (Lincoln Fire Chief) Randy Gockley, the officers and board of directors," added committee member Susan Rowe. "I’m not sure if they got the information back from Lincoln yet."

Another matter that remains unclear is the total cost of the new radio program being considered by each fire company. Council member Anthony Kilkuskie questioned whether the $25,000 would be enough to cover the entire purchase.

"My recollection was that the $25,000 would not cover the cost of all the radios," said Kilkuskie. "If they were to get all they needed, this would not cover it but it would go a long way. I think the total cost could be in excess of $25,000."

Indeed Kiefer indicated Tuesday the estimated cost of the radios, if all new, would be between $30,000-$40,000.

Mayor Ralph Mowen is an active member of the Pioneer Fire Company. He weighed in on the total project as it now stands.

"Knowing the operations of both entities, knowing their truck and line operators have radios, I know that Pioneer uses more radios," commented Mowen. "Lincoln is more likely to equip its chief, truck officers and line officers whereas Pioneer sometimes, depending on status, equips some of the more aggressive firemen in the buildings. I’m not sure either know for sure how many they will need."

In addition, Mowen added insight that both companies are still struggling to determine what will best meet the needs of the department while also not exceeding available funds. Borough Manager Bob Thompson interjected whether or not the borough should be the only municipality contributing to the cost of the radios, considering the fact Ephrata Borough is not the only municipality being served by the two fire companies. He suggested that perhaps the other serviced municipalities consider contributing perhaps, based on a percentage of the volume of fire and emergency calls.

In the end, council agree to request a considerable amount of more information before moving forward. Borough staff will continue to work with Pioneer in the coming week with the possibility being that enough information could be brought to Monday night’s voting session. In the meantime, the public safety committee has agreed to table the request.

"We’re trying to look at the big picture," Kiefer said of the contingency plan. "We have vehicle (costs) in the future, maintaining our building, (etc.) – all this cost dollars and we need to be astute in spending those dollars."

For additional information on Ephrata Borough, visit ephrataboro.org. Gary P. Klinger welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions via e-mail at klingerglobal@gmail.com.

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