Radio coverage expanding for BIVFD

Thu, 12/05/2019 - 5:15pm
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Block Island’s first responders have led the effort to interconnect all the town government’s departments with one another using a single digital VHF two-way radio system. Now, as the Block Island Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department plans an addition to the system to improve coverage and reduce the number of “dead zones” with little or no reception, the Department is also planning to ask the town to reimburse them for the cost of the new equipment, and to contribute to the system’s operating costs in the annual budget.

The BIVFD members voted unanimously at their Nov. 18 meeting to spend up to $38,000 to purchase and install a “satellite receiver” at the Block Island School. It would be connected to the fiber optic cable of the recently activated Community Anchor Institutions network as the “first deployment” of an expanded radio communications system, said Howell Conant, the department’s Communications Officer.

Currently, all incoming calls from the handheld radios in the field must reach the central antennas at the Public Safety Building to be heard and responded to. Terrain and other factors in parts of the island block the signal from those low-power devices, creating the dead zones. The receiver at the school will intercept incoming calls, connect them to the hub through the CAI line, and retransmit outgoing calls with more power.

“There is a significant problem” with reception in the south and southwest portions of the island, Conant explained. “The southwest quadrant has the highest density” of residents and structures in a dead zone. If the satellite receiver at the school improves coverage as expected, he continued, the BIVFD would plan to install two more once the projected island-wide internet system is built: at Beacon Hill in the island’s center and on Bush Lot Hill on Corn Neck Road. The result would be “darn near 100 percent coverage,” according to Conant.

The overall communications program now covers all the town’s agencies, with radios used by fire and rescue personnel, police, sewer, water and road crews, the harbormaster’s staff and the Block Island Power Company, among others. The school alone has 27 radios, Conant said.

Fire Chief Mike Ernst and Conant agreed that the new costs should be shared by those departments. “It took a lot of people to come together to get the system designed,” said Ernst, and the new satellite receiver “benefits everyone on the system.”

“If we want to get this done, we have to pay,” Ernst said.

Treasurer Mike Lofaro confirmed that the BIVFD — an independent non-profit organization supported by donations and by the town — has enough cash on hand to pay the estimated $35,000 installation cost of the satellite receiver at the school. But he noted that the amount does not include Conant’s own unpaid labor. If Conant’s labor had been included, the cost would have been closer to $50,000 for this first deployment, Lofaro said. There are plans for two additional receivers elsewhere on the island.

“Like a lot of things, we either ante up and do it ourselves” or the work won’t get done, Conant said. The first step will be seeking reimbursement from the town for the cost of the equipment at the school. He projected that the communications system will have to “matriculate” to a service supported by taxpayers through the town’s annual budget.

“We have to prove that (the expanded radio system) works” before asking the town to pay, said Fire Lieutenant Chris Hobe.

“This is standard stuff for all departments on the mainland,” Conant replied. “This is not unusual.” He agreed, however, that a budget must be developed for annual system maintenance and operations, and to account for the equipment’s lifespan.