The Coast News Group
A fire official uses one of the radios that will be replaced in order to comply with Project 25, that allows public safety crews better communications with other emergency responders during a disaster. The Encinitas Fire Department will have all of their emergency response radios P25 compliant thanks to a grant from FEMA. Photo courtesy of the Encinitas Fire Department
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FEMA grant allows fire department to upgrade radios

ENCINITAS — For many emergency crews around the country, replacing or upgrading radios has been a slow process due to high costs of the equipment and departments’ budgetary constraints. 

Some of that was able to change when FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) began to offer grants that helped pay for much needed equipment for the departments.

Through FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant, the Encinitas Fire Department will be able to upgrade all of their radios, ensuring that all will meet Project 25 requirements.

Since 2001 the Encinitas Fire Department has received of total of $983,396 from FEMA’s Assistance to Firefighters Grant including the awarding of $126,709 this year, which will go towards the purchasing of the new radios.

Previous grant awards to the department have gone towards the purchasing of a fire safety education trailer, compressed air foam units, a washer/extractor and drying cabinet and a regional videoconferencing system.

“We’ve been pretty successful with this particular grant program,” said Tom Gallup, senior management analyst with the city of Encinitas. “Typically, they (FEMA) fund one out of five applications. But the intent of the program through FEMA was to help fire departments across the country meet equipment needs, understanding how finances are.”

The total operating budget for the department, which also includes lifeguards, is $11 million, Gallup said. “Most of that is personnel costs,” he said. “It seems like because the personnel costs have grown, too, over the years, we have to adjust on the other side of it. So it limits what you can spend on equipment and supplies…it’s always a challenge.”

The Encinitas Fire Department employs approximately 63 people, which includes the firefighters, chief officers, fire prevention and administrative staff.

It became necessary to have radios that were interoperable, where all of the agencies could talk to each other, explained Capt. Mike Daigle of the Encinitas Fire Department.

Starting in the fall of 1989, APCO (Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials) established Project 25 (P25) to help create a nationwide standard for digital communications and interoperability between public safety departments.

The Department, Daigle said, had a little more than 20 percent of its radios compliant prior to receiving the grant.

By the end of this year the department will have 100 percent of their radios, which are used for 9-1-1 response calls P25 compliant.

“The newer equipment will have a greater range and greater capabilities and it’s going to be more reliable,” Daigle said.

The P25 compliant radios will operate on an 800 megahertz frequency that is shared by the other emergency crews around North County.

With a percentage of the department’s radios already upgraded, once the old radios are replaced firefighters won’t need any extra training on the operation of new radios.

All of the agencies in San Diego and Imperial counties are working to replace their radios, making them compliant with the new P25 networks by 2013.

“Basically we’ll be able to talk to every agency that will be involved in a disaster,” Daigle said. “By initiating that program, you needed radios that were able to do that.

“So that was an upgrade on the radios that we had at that time. Over…probably the last 10 to 12 years, we’ve been starting to buy radios that are compliant with that program. But they’re expensive.”

Also, with the boundary drops, which have been in place for years, Encinitas fire crews are constantly talking with surrounding fire agencies and are able to talk with law enforcement through some dedicated channels, Daigle explained.

“Which helps us out quite a bit,” he said. “Because it used to be one of those processes that you had to go through your dispatch to talk to their dispatch to relay a message to them.

“And now you can open that channel of communications…we can actually hail…the Sheriff’s dispatch and let them know that we’re on a certain channel and have…direct contact with them.”

That makes it a lot less complicated, Daigle added. “It’s more seamless that we’re actually able to talk to somebody in real time on scene instead of going through a couple of different dispatches.”

Daigle said they’re pretty successful with the grants for different equipment. “And nowadays you have to be to just keep your equipment…the cost of everything is going up and it’s tough to stay relevant if you’re not getting a little help from these grants.”