The lack of interoperable radios among volunteer firefighters came into focus in 2022, the second-worst year for wildfires in state history. The fires included this one sparked in late July by lightning south of Gering. (Courtesy of Nebraska State Patrol)
LINCOLN — When a wind-blown wildfire broke out in rural Lancaster County in October, dozens of volunteer firefighters from the region rushed to the scene.
Flames raced across farm fields, consuming outbuildings and rural homes in its path, and blackening a state wildlife area.
But there was a problem: Several of the volunteer fire departments that responded carried older radios that can’t connect with a Statewide Radio System established by the state in 2010.
Only 27 departments have up-to-date radios
More than two decades later, only 27 of the state’s 429 rural fire departments and ambulance services have radios capable of accessing the so-called SRS, forcing them to relay messages from one county dispatch center to another and then on to firefighters, or resort to cell phones.
Volunteers say it prevents immediate response to accident scenes, well-coordinated attacks on wildfires, and even assistance to colleagues injured or trapped by flames.
“Imagine what we could do if we could immediately communicate with each other instead of having to piece things together,” said Aaron Hofeling of the Eagle Volunteer Fire & Rescue Department.
Radios cost $9,200 each
The big problem, Hofeling and other volunteer firefighters said Thursday, is that small departments, running on a shoestring, can’t afford the cost of the radios that can connect with the SRS, radios that can cost $9,200 each.
The total expense per department, based on two mobile radios, a digital “repeater” and training, programming and installation costs, are estimated to cost up to $52,000. That exceeds some departments’ total annual budget.
It adds up to an estimated $26 million to equip all volunteer departments.
Michael Dwyer of the Nebraska State Volunteer Firefighters Association said that is a lot of money.
“But public safety is one of the true essential responsibilities of government,” he told the Legislature’s Appropriations Committee.
Legislative Bill 511, introduced by State Sen. Tom Brewer, would allocate $26 million to address the shortage of interoperable radios.
Firefighters who testified Thursday in support of LB 511 said that the lack of compatible radios is not a new issue but that recent major disasters, including the 2019 floods and the 2020 wildfires, illustrated the great need for the improved technology.
In 2012, for instance, about 100 volunteer fire departments responded to a wildfire racing through the Niobrara River valley north of Ainsworth.
But Ainsworth Fire Chief Brad Fiala said the lack of interoperable radios plagued a coordinated response — only five or six department had radios that connected to the SRS. It left him unable to locate and direct help to two firefighters injured while fighting the blaze.
Dave Collett, the manager of the Statewide Radio System, said 15 state agencies, 82 state, local and county law enforcement agencies and 31 county emergency management agencies are connected to the SRS with modern radios, but only 27 volunteer fire and rescue squads. More than 80 “repeater sites” are located across the state, he said, allowing radio signals to avoid being blocked by geography or long distance.
“You can be in Chadron and talk to someone in Falls City,” Collett told state lawmakers.
Jerry Stillmock, a lobbyist for the firefighters association, said the lack of interoperability isn’t limited just to remote areas of the Sandhills or the Panhandle.
Once you leave Omaha or Lincoln, if there’s an accident, Stillmock said it’s very likely a volunteer fire or rescue department will be responding, making it essential to have radios that can reach everyone responding.
Senators on the Appropriations Committee had several questions about the cost of the radio systems and whether there were other alternatives, such as the most-modern cell phones.
The committee took no action after Thursday’s hearing. It will begin crafting the budget after budget hearings end Friday March 24.
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