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Burn bans, county radios vex area's fire chiefs

Staff writer

A group of county fire chiefs aired their frustrations about several problems they have faced to county commissioners Monday.

The first to speak was Goessel fire chief Matthew Voth, who reminded commissioners that a burn resolution was passed in December 2017 giving the county emergency manager power to impose a temporary burn ban and notify commissioners as soon as possible.

That decision is to be made considering fire weather indices, which are also to be used when people call dispatch to report a controlled burn.

“In the past, before each Monday commissioners meeting, a frantic effort would be made to call each fire chief and get an idea from them on whether or not a burn ban should be in effect for the next week,” Voth said. “This was a disorganized, unscientific-based approach to creating a burn ban which caused frustration from the public, dispatch, the commissioners, and the chiefs.”

The resolution also gave each fire chief authority to impose a temporary burn ban in their district in a state of emergency. That way a fire chief can impose a short burn ban until multiple fires in his district are under control.

“For some reason around Thanksgiving the commissioners or the emergency management director started going back to the old system of trying to call the chiefs before the commission meetings to get advice,” Voth said. “This old system should not have happened with this resolution in place.”

Voth said the chief suggest the commission take into consideration whether media reports of large fires are accurate, and whether fire departments in other counties allowed fires to grow large.

“The longer a burn ban is in place, the more the fuel load piles up and when burning is allowed again, everybody goes nuts,” Voth said.

Voth asked commissioners to read the entire policy.

“We fully support and recognize that prescribed burning is an essential tool for the landowners in this county,” Voth said.

Next to speak was Lincolnville fire chief Les Kaiser. His subject, about which he has addressed commissioners several times in the past, was signal strength of the county’s 800 MHz radios. Chiefs were told the radios would be an improvement over the radios firefighters used before and eliminate dead spots. Fire departments were told the new radios would be left with the county so all departments could try them out.

“I know of two departments that did not get a chance to try the radios in their area,” Kaiser said. “I was relatively pleased with how the radios worked in my area. I checked all the dead spots in my response area and the radios worked very well. I didn’t think to test them throughout the whole area or inside of buildings because we were advised they would work better than our existing ones.”

Hillsboro fire department first said they had problems communicating from inside buildings, Kaiser said. A new channel was added that allows the radios to communicate directly with one another instead of a signal going to a tower.

“How it is actually working currently in my district and on the north end, we are having reception issues,” Kaiser said. “I have two locations only within my house where I receive any signal strength at all and may or may not receive a page. My assistant chief has the same situation in his house. The fire chief from Lost Springs has one place in his house where he receives a signal. Florence also experiences issues. With other departments it varies. Some departments are better than the old radio system, some are the same.”

Kaiser said he spoke with Aaron Corcoran, who works for Motorola’s corporate office. Corcoran did a propagation study, then said the way the county’s radio system was designed, it would provide very limited building coverage. Corcoran said he had people about that in the beginning of the radio project, but the information was not relayed to the fire chiefs.

Kaiser said there have been times his fire district could not communicate with dispatchers even when talking on the mobile radios both on the north and south of Lincolnville.

“On one instance in January of this year, there was a medical call in which the Burns first responders were dispatched to assist Florence ambulance,” Kaiser said. “Burns first responders advised that they would be a bit delayed and when they went in service, they attempted to contact the ambulance, and after failed attempts, dispatch advised that they would probably not hear them as they were already in the house. There have also been county deputies and other law enforcement personnel who have stated that they are also encountering the same issues. This is a serious safety issue, if we can not talk to dispatch or contact others on the radio, at some point it could cost someone serious injury or possibly their life.”

Hillsboro fire chief Ben Steketee said many Hillsboro buildings don’t get radio coverage, and when volunteers don’t get pages, the department doesn’t get volunteers. Handheld radios have more problems, he said.

Emergency Medical Services director Travis Parmley said he’s noticed that when he puts on his microphone, his signal strength drops.

County resident Linda Peters said that back when the radio system was initially discussed, it was specifically asked whether police departments, deputies, and fire departments would be able to communicate, and the county was told “yes.”

“This is so disappointing,” Peters said. “When are we going to hold these companies accountable?”

Last modified Feb. 13, 2020

 

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