Conn. city to upgrade decades-old communications equipment for dispatch, 6 FDs

With the purchase, the city’s paid and volunteer FDs will all be on the same mobile communications system and able to communicate with mutual-aid units

Claire Bessette
The Day

NORWICH, Conn. — Spurred by millions of dollars in federal coronavirus relief funds and a renewed urgency provided by a recent outside fire services study, the city will act quickly to solve a decades-long public safety hazard put off for years by lack of city funds.

The City Council voted unanimously in December to allocate $3.4 million of the remaining $17 million in this year's federal American Rescue Plan grant to replace antiquated communications equipment for all six fire departments, related computer equipment, and a major upgrade to the city's emergency dispatch center.

East Great Plain Volunteer Fire Chief Keith Milton told the City Council a new communications system is
East Great Plain Volunteer Fire Chief Keith Milton told the City Council a new communications system is "crucial" and would be "a game changer" for the city's emergency responders. (Photo/East Great Plain Volunteer Fire Company)

Replacing the communications system and upgrading the city's dispatch center equipment was listed as a top priority in an outside fire services study released last February.

Police Chief Patrick Daley said the city will realize savings of nearly $900,000 by bundling the communications systems and the dispatch center upgrade together. And the city got another incentive to hurry the project when mobile radios vendor Motorola offered a $540,000 discount if the city signed the contract by Dec. 21. City Manager John Salomone did just that the day after the City Council vote.

"I'm all for discounts," Alderman Swaranjit Singh Khalsa said.

With the new system, the city's paid fire department and all five volunteer departments will be on the same mobile communications system, and they will be able to communicate with the emergency dispatch center at the police station, with state police, American Ambulance and any mutual aid units that respond to the city to assist during emergency incidents.

For years, city paid and volunteer fire officials have pleaded with city administrators and political leaders to replace the antiquated system that frequently dropped calls and made it difficult for different units to communicate with one another during emergencies. But tight city funding continually delayed the project.

East Great Plain Volunteer Fire Chief Keith Milton told the City Council the new system is "crucial" and would be "a game changer" for the city's emergency responders.

"The radio system is very old and has failed numerous times in years past." Milton told the City Council. "We're finally getting the chance to upgrade to something new that's very reliable."

Police Chief Patrick Daley said the two council votes to allocate the money and authorize the contract with Motorola were the culmination of six months of "intense work" by the six fire chiefs and police Lt. John Perry, who coordinated the effort, along with leadership support from Salomone.

Daley, a former volunteer fire chief, said the upgrade will bring the volunteer fire services communications "from the '50s" and the paid fire department communications "from the '80s" into "the 2030s and '40s."

Laurel Hill Volunteer Fire Chief Aaron Westervelt added that it's becoming increasingly difficult to impossible to find parts for the old equipment.

In addition to allocating $3.4 million in ARP money for the radios and communications equipment, the city will receive a separate $700,000 grant to pay for the dispatch center upgrade.

Norwich Fire Chief Tracy Montoya said all six fire departments did a field test of the new Motorola radios recently and all reported the radio coverage was far superior to the current system.

"Across the board, everyone says it's a fantastic system," Montoya said.

The fire services study also recommended the city add staff to the emergency dispatch center, which has only one dispatcher on duty on most weekend day shifts and most night shifts. Salomone said this week he will consider staffing issues with the upcoming spring budget season.

(c)2021 The Day 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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