BERNARDSTON – The Bernardston Fire and Police Departments are lobbying to purchase repeaters to address safety concerns from first responders who have limited radio operation in the city.
According to Fire Chief Peter Shedd, without a repeater — a device that boosts the signal from first responders’ cellphone radios — his department’s firefighters have “limited radio operability inside buildings,” particularly at Bernardston Elementary School. That concern was echoed by Police Chief James Palmeri, who cited a recent incident where an officer inside a school was unable to call on his cell radio.
“We had an officer respond to the scene, leave the scene and try to get a status on him,” Palmer recounted. “He could hear us, but he couldn’t communicate with us. We didn’t know if he needed help. We didn’t know if he wanted us to continue. We did not know the full circumstances of the call. Because we could not communicate with them, we tried to contact them via cell phone, we tried to contact the front office. There was no answer either way.”
Shedd said the only place to get a radio signal at the elementary school is at the main entrance or near the windows. Once first responders get deeper into the school, the waiting is lost.
According to both leaders, the elementary school is not the only place in the city where this is a problem. Palmer said his department drove around town and found several dead zones, some of which were at businesses. Palmer said radios were not working in many areas, including Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield, “which is of great concern.”
“If (first responders are) inside the building and something happens and they get trapped, and they put it out on a May Day or something like that, it could be gone or unnoticed,” Shedd said. “It’s definitely a problem for firefighters if they’re in the building, or maybe they’re in the attic or basement, and they want more hoses or more water pressure. … That communication is key.”
Shedd said wait issues have also been found by the Fire Department at The Heirloom Collective marijuana dispensary on Northfield Road (Route 10) because the building is all metal and highly insulated.
“We’ve had calls to the pot factory,” he said, “and we’ve known that when someone walks in, they’re at their core.”
According to Shedd, even with repeaters, departments would still have some problems because of Bernardston’s geography. A problem area would be near the top of Huckle Hill, where radio signals would not reach.
Palmer said the Deerfield Police Department recently tested its cell repeaters with Chief Jon Hall of the Northfield Police Department at all Pioneer Valley Regional School District facilities and found there was “crystal clear communication.”
The mobile radios both departments are currently using are from Motorola, the same company they would like to purchase repeaters from. Palmer said the Police Department used a grant to purchase these radios and it cost approximately $60,000 for all police officers to have a radio, at no cost to the city of Bernardston.
As for the new repeaters, Palmer said the current quote to get four repeaters for his department is $60,000. Shedd said the Fire Department is looking to get two repeaters.
Selectboard Chairman Brian Keir said he is aware that buying the repeaters is “the right decision” but has concerns about the cost.
“We’re just a small town,” Keir said. “We know we have to do something. It’s just a matter of when we have to.”
Keir explained that it would be easier to allocate funds to the Fire Department since it needs fewer repeaters than the Police Department, with the police being different as each cruiser often goes to a separate location. Keir said he wants to find a way to “fund everyone”.
The city has applied for grants for both departments, but has yet to find one that will help with the costs of the new repeaters, according to Keir. American Recovery Plan Act (ARPA) funding is likely how the city will help get repeaters, but Keir said Bernardston has “a lot of needs” and that city officials are “still trying to get all the information of correct”.
“They’ve done their homework,” Keir said, referring to Shedd and Palmer. “We definitely feel for them and we know it’s hard for them.”
Keir said he plans to meet with both chiefs at some point in early 2023 to further discuss repeater options.