Whitman County receives $400,000 to upgrade Emergency Services radio communications system

PULLMAN, WA - Every year about 20,000 fire departments apply for a regional grant. Only about a fifth of them are approved. And this year, Whitman County District 12 is one of them.

Jenee' Ryan tells us about the grant and what they'll use it for.

"We put our names on it, sent it in and we got the grant which was unbelievable," said Whitman County Fire Dist.12 Rural Chief, Lester Erwin.

Whitman County just received over $400,000 from Homeland Security to upgrade its Emergency Services radio communications system.

Fire District 12 put in for the grant, but all of Whitman County will benefit.

The structure behind me is called a communication tower. It allows dispatch and firefighters to talk to each other during emergencies but right now, sometimes that can be difficult.

"Whitman County's not a small county and stuff so we go from quite a ways north to quite a ways east and west, then we drop down into the Snake River," said Erwin. "And the Snake River you've gotta be able to get that signal up out of there and back over here to Pullman."

Not to mention the rolling hills.

"Our terrain is so up and down, you get behind one little rock, hill and stuff and you won't be able to hit the repeater," said Erwin.

Repeaters are structures placed on mountain tops that relay messages between the communication tower and dispatch and the responders.

"Talking to dispatch is very important because they keep track of where our rigs are and where people are and stuff so if someone doesn't check in for a while someone could be hurt," said Erwin.

Right now emergency responders communicate through a single site dispatch system using multiple frequencies on radios.

This grant money will upgrade the system to a simulcast on one channel using microwaves.

"It's similar to fiber-optic cable in the ground except this is microwave going through the air," said Whitman Emergency Management Director, Bill Tensfeld. "Nobody can cut this with a backhoe like they can fiber so it's a little bit more reliable."

For the grant the county does have to pay a five-percent match of the grant which comes out to about $20,000.

"That money will come from the one tenth of one percent sales tax that the voters voted on in '05," said Tensfeld.

But both Tensfeld and Erwin said that's a small price to pay for the upgrade.

"Appreciate the opportunity for the government to do these FEMA grants because these little districts cannot afford to keep up their equipment, their gear and stuff, their engines," said Erwin.

Whitman County Fire District 12 is also waiting to hear back on grant requests for a tender and equipment.