Capt. Tim Hughes of the Columbus Fire Department worries about the safety of his firefighters and city residents because the department is using outdated two-way radios that make it difficult to communicate in routine or emergency environments.
For example, the metal walls in some of the city’s factories act as a reception shield, preventing firefighters from using old-technology analog radios inside the building when attempting to communicate with colleagues while stationed outside, Hughes said.
That means a firefighter in an emergency has to break away from the group working to control the fire and head outside to communicate with his commander, leaving remaining firefighters and any building employees inside at greater risk.
“To me, this is the safety of the public involved and the safety of my men. Both these items are important to me,” Hughes said.
Tools of the trade
WHAT: New radios for Columbus Fire Department firefighters.
WHEN: By the first three months of 2013.
WHY: To improve communication abilities and resolve current communication problems.
Connects firefighters to a statewide digital communication system that allows firefighters across the state to communicate with each other.
Digital and analog capabilities, to improve communication capabilities. Firefighters can use a statewide digital system or the city’s backup analog system.
Yellow, so they can be seen if they fall in ashes.
Large knobs, making them easy to use while wearing protective gloves.
Hands-free communication capability, with ear piece.
Distress button firefighters can activate, to help them be located.
NUMBER NEEDED: 60.
COST: $4,265.23 per radio, estimated. $225,913.80 total cost, estimated. Cost could be lower through bid process.
FUNDING SOURCE: City’s fire cumulative capital fund.
The Columbus Fire Department has 92 firefighters spread among its six stations.
Most Columbus firefighters’ radios are analog, while the other agencies’ radios are digital, Hughes said. Columbus Fire Chief David Allmon compared the analog radios to AM radio stations that get interference, and the digital radios to clearer, stronger FM radio stations.
The purchase of state-of-the-art radios was Allmon’s top priority when he took over as fire chief in September. The city agreed that the need is so important that it is planning to spend more than $250,000 to buy 60 new digital radios.
“Without communication, your hands are tied,” Allmon said.
The cost is estimated at $4,265.23 per radio, or $255,913.80 total.
Allmon estimated that some of the department’s current radios were out of date five years ago. He said the shortcomings of the department’s communication tools were known to former Mayor Fred Armstrong.
“It did not seem a priority to that administration to bring us forward,” Allmon said.
The communications shortcomings were such an issue with firefighters that Allmon was asked what could be done about them during an all-department meeting shortly after he accepted the job of chief.
Firefighters face multiple communication challenges, Hughes said.
“We’re on a completely different radio system than city police, county police and county firefighters,” he said, meaning direct communication with other local agencies isn’t possible.
The differing communications systems means messages to the other agencies must be relayed through the county’s 911 emergency dispatch center.
The Columbus Fire Department is the only public safety agency in the county that is not on the statewide digital system, Mayor Kristen Brown said.
Lt. Matt Myers, public information officer for the Columbus police and fire departments, explained that the statewide system allows the Columbus Police Department to talk with the North Vernon, Seymour, Franklin or Indianapolis police, plus other mutual-aid providers, simply by turning a few knobs on their radios.
Brown added that city firefighters are unable to communicate with the Department of Homeland Security, the Indiana State Police or other similar agencies should there be a large disaster.
“Our fire department needs to be able to communicate with all the responding agencies,” she said.
Allmon said, for example, that the current radios would have to be reprogrammed for specific communication with units from different counties. He called that a waste of time and money, especially when units might be asked to respond quickly to provide assistance.
Additionally, if firefighters are having meetings in the airport’s basement meeting room, for example, one firefighter has to be stationed upstairs just to monitor radio traffic from the emergency 911 dispatch center, Hughes said. Those downstairs can’t hear dispatch calls because of the physical barriers of the building.
Allmon said his goal is to have firefighters using the new radios within the first three months of 2013.
Sixty new radios will mean every firefighter on duty has one that is specially made for firefighting activity.
Brown said about $330,000 will remain in the city’s fire cumulative capital fund after this year, providing more than enough to cover the new radios.
Specifications for the radios are being finalized, including which additional area units Columbus firefighters want to have quick access to, Allmon said.
Bids for the radios must be received, Brown said, so that a competitive process can ensure a good price.
She expected the radios to be purchased in January or February.
The federal government has pushed digital communication, Myers said, because it wants all first-responders throughout the United States to be able to communicate on the local level, and with state and federal agencies, if needed.