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Pennsylvania Firefighters, Ambulance Services Seek Grants for Narrowbanding

Pottsville and Minersville are seeking two Assistance to Firefighters grants from the federal government that require a 10 percent local match.

by Stephen J. Pytak, McClatchy News Service / April 22, 2014

Fire companies and ambulance services from the Pottsville and Minersville area are working together to acquire more than $1 million in grant money to buy two-way radios needed to stay in tune with the federal government's narrowbanding project.

"The low band system we're on is not the most efficient system in the world. And we want to keep up with changing times. This is a regional effort, and a total of 21 local emergency responders are taking part in it," Kurt Shelhamer, captain of the Yorkville Hose Company and business manager for Pottsville/Schuylkill Area EMS, said Monday.

They're seeking two Assistance to Firefighters grants, which are managed by the federal government and require a 10 percent local match. One grant is for new portable radios and the other is for mobile radios, according to Shelhamer and Minersville fire Chief Eric Eichenberg.

They are:

- An application for 95 mobile radios. If approved, it would provide $285,000, $256,500 in federal dollars. A local match of $28,500 is required.

- An application for 289 portable radios. If approved, it would provide $875,500, $787,950 in federal dollars. A local match of $87,550 is required.

This is a $1,160,500 project, which would involve $1,044,450 in federal funds and $116,050 in local funds, according to figures provided by Shelhamer and Eichenberg.

"We should hear if we got the grants by October," Mark Atkinson, Pottsville city councilman, said Friday.

"The only way firefighters in the City of Pottsville are going to be able get these radios is with some kind of grant money. The city can't afford it. The fire companies can't afford it. Fire companies are hurting for money," Pottsville fire Chief Todd March said Monday.

In 2013, the Federal Communications Commission mandated all public safety mobile radio systems operating in 150-512 MHz radio bands to start using "at least 12.5 kHz efficiency technology," according to

The two-way radio industry calls the process narrowbanding.

Thus far, the FCC has only enforced its mandate on law enforcement agencies.

In May 2013, the city council decided to equip its police department with 26 Motorola APX6500 VHF-FM high-power portable two-way radios at a cost of $101,413, and five Motorola APX6500 VHF high-power mobile two-way radios at a cost of $25,831.25, according to records acquired by City Administrator Thomas A. Palamar.

The Borough of Minersville didn't have to buy new two-way radios for its police department, according to Minersville police Chief Michael P. Combs.

"All our radios are compatible with the narrowband," Combs said Monday.

Atkinson said he believes the FCC will eventually force fire and ambulance services to do radio upgrades.

"With the radios we use now, you have to have a separate radio for each band," March said Monday. In the sport-utility vehicle he drives when on duty, March has one low-band radio to communicate with fellow firefighters and one high-band radio to talk to city police.

"And you can't talk to high band if you have a low band radio. On a narrowband, everybody can talk to everybody. That's the only advantage of it," March said.

Getting with the program will be expensive.

In Schuylkill County, the average fire company will need 10 to 15 new radios with narrowband capabilities, March said.

"They'll need a mobile unit for each of their trucks. Some companies have one truck. Some have up to three trucks. New mobile radios are more than $5,000 apiece. And as far as portable radios, fire companies on average have at least 10, and those will be $3,000 to $4,000 apiece. So you're talking a lot of money. Small fire companies in our area aren't going to be able to afford these radios," March said.

"The federal government pushes for regional projects. The grant writers tell us if you put in for regional projects, you have a much better shot at getting them approved," Atkinson said.

With that in mind, representatives of 21 emergency responders in the Pottsville and Minersville area put together the grant applications.

They included the seven fire companies in Pottsville and the four fire companies in Minersville, including Minersville Goodwill Fire and EMS, Shelhamer said.

The others are Pottsville/Schuylkill Area EMS; Citizens Fire Company, Branchdale; Clover Fire Company, Heckschersville; Forestville Citizens Fire Company; Good Intent of Lewellyn; Newtown Volunteer Fire Company; Muir Volunteer Fire Company; Valley View Fire Company; Ravine Fire Company; and Summit Station Fire Company.

In a related matter, on April 13, the Pottsville council decided to equip three vehicles used by its the fire department's chiefs with new Motorola APX6500 VHF high-power mobile two-way radios at a cost of $15,498.

They will be installed in the two all-wheel-drive 2014 Ford Interceptor SUVs the city recently ordered for the assistant chiefs. The third will be installed in the 2008 Chevy Tahoe used by Chief March, according to Atkinson.

© 2014 the Republican & Herald (Pottsville, Pa.)

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