Citing death of Burrillville firefighter, officials appeal for $639K ARPA-funded communication upgrades

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BURRILLVILLE – Noting that radio communications failed during a 2018 incident in which a town firefighter ultimately lost his life, emergency personnel in Burrillville presented a united front last week in the case for funding costly upgrades to the town’s radio system with the help of money received through the federal American Rescue Plan Act.

The group – made up of the town’s fire and police chiefs, dispatchers and other emergency personnel – is requesting $639,000 to fund upgrades from an analog to digital radio system, including the needed alarm boxes, as well as a supplemental allocation for the already approved project to build a new dispatch center.

“We know that we’re asking for a lot of money. We know there’s other people who need those funds,” said Harrisville Fire Chief Michael Gingell at a meeting Wednesday, Feb. 23. “It’s a project that’s going to benefit the entire community.”

Councilors ultimately voted to move one portion of the request – the $279,000 radio box upgrade – forward.

The large allocation requested to upgrade the radio system itself, meanwhile, would not finance those upgrades on its own, but would supplement a hoped-for $1.2 million grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

But in a plea to the Town Council on Wednesday, the unified message was that the spending is needed – and ultimately inevitable. The town, officials noted, is currently operating on a radio signal system installed in 1999 that has numerous dead spots.

“It has served us now for about 22 years,” said Pascoag Fire Chief Mark St. Pierre. “That technology is changing. The problem is the radio system now is becoming obsolete with the analog mode, and we need to go to the digital mode.”

Chief Joseph Bertholic, who currently runs both the Oakland Mapleville and Nasonville fire districts, noted that if the radio upgrade project was financed through fire taxes alone, it would cost about $70,000 per district.

“You’re going to pay a hefty increase in your taxes just for that,” Bertholic said.

But through the grants from ARPA and FEMA, the group argued, it would be money more than well spent. In 2018, Pascoag Firefighter Richard Jenks collapsed while fighting a chimney fire, ultimately dying in the line of duty.

“Communications were a problem,” said Gingell. “We’ve been through a chimney fire where we lost a firefighter. It’s very emotional for us.”

“We know this is a huge amount of money, but what it should all boil down to is safety,” said dispatcher Keith McCarthy. “We are very, very fortunate that we have fire chiefs and their subordinates in this town that put a lot on the line.”

McCarthy noted that on numerous occasions, emergency personnel have had radio failure leading to feedback and a repetitive click, which could only be alleviated by manually disabling the system.

At a fire in Harrisville in 2020, McCarthy noted that firefighters shouted ‘Mayday!’ when they thought the roof on the structure might collapse.

“No one heard that,” said McCarthy. “That is scary. That should have been heard by every single person at the scene.”

“Fortunately, it all worked out,” the dispatcher said. “No one got hurt, but that’s a red flag that we need to upgrade. Officer and firefighter safety is the epitome of what we do.”

Bertholic noted the system has dead spots in Nasonville, as well as Benedict Road and Buxton Street.

“It’s terrible if we go down there,” Bertholic said. “A lot of times, we have to use our cell phones.”

Gingell noted that he can’t communicate with the police station from the library in Harrisville without going back to his truck.

“A simple message from the library to the police station doesn’t go through,” he said.

Gingell pointed out that the upgrade will also enhance Burrillville’s ability to interact with other police and fire departments.

“We have limited ability to do that now,” the chief said. “Most of them have gone to the 800 system, which is a nationally recognized system.”

The need to upgrade presents an added a challenge for personnel working in a town that borders both Massachusetts and Connecticut.

“The firefighter has two and three radios in his hands so he can talk to everybody,” Gingell said. “It is severely obsolete and outdated.”

GIngell noted that the Burrillville Public Works Department would also be served by the new system.

“They’re also our partner in public safety,” he said. “Sometimes we need snow removal to get a truck or a rescue through.”

Burrillville Fire Alarm Supt. Robert Gautreau noted that in 2021, the town was also notified by the manufacturer that Burrillville’s current system is being phased out due to the inability to secure parts. He added that dispatch will still receive analog communications following the planned upgrade, but that businesses in town will eventually need to follow suit.

“They won’t immediately have to do that, but there will be a day somewhere down the road,” noted Councilor Dennis Anderson of the future expense for local businesses.

Anderson said that for him, the issue of funding the project with ARPA is, “kind of a slam dunk.” The town is receiving around $5 million in federal money, aimed at improving infrastructure and other enhancements as part of pandemic recovery.

“Doing nothing is not an option,” Anderson said, noting that it would be difficult to fund the project through the town’s normal budget process. “From my perspective, it absolutely should fit in ARPA funding. I’m convinced this is a very worthwhile way to spend the money.”

Police Col. Stephen Lynch broke down the costs for the three requests. A $260,000 allocation would help to fund the digital radio upgrade, while $279,000 would be used to upgrade radio boxes at a cost of $5,000 a piece.

For the new dispatch center, a project already underway following approval by the council in 2021, a $100,000 allocation would supplement the $285,000 already approved.

“It is to get us to the best possible system we can have in our dispatch center,” Lynch said of the $100,000 upgrade to a Motorola system that can cut out background noise and allow dispatchers to control who they can hear. “I will be dead and gone by the time someone needs a dispatch center redesign.”

“The rest comes from EMA,” said Lynch, pointing to a $1.2 million grant application.

The chief said that Burrillville officials applied for the FEMA grant last year, but were turned down. He said grant writers have since done research, however, and believe they are, “in a much better place,” to secure the federal funding.

Lynch compared the change in radio systems, meanwhile, to the difference between old UHF TV channels versus cable channels. The chief noted that right now, he loses his ability to hear the radio signal by the town’s border with North Smithfield, while the new system would be clear traveling to the border of New York state.

“The difference is quite profound,” Lynch said.

“It is an essential tool,” said McCarthy, a dispatcher in Burrillville for the past three years with some 24 years of experience. “I think it’s the brain of our operation. We need an efficient, clear, safe way to communicate.”

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