Bernardston police, fire officials hope to buy repeaters to boost mobile radio signal

  • The Bernardston Police Department’s charging station for its mobile radios. FOR THE RECORDER/LIESEL NYGARD

For the Recorder
Published: 12/25/2022 3:01:04 PM
Modified: 12/25/2022 3:00:21 PM

BERNARDSTON — The Bernardston Fire and Police departments are lobbying to purchase repeaters to address safety concerns resulting from first responders having limited radio operability in town.

According to Fire Chief Peter Shedd, without repeaters — a device that boosts the signal from first responders’ mobile radios — his department’s firefighters have “limited radio operability inside buildings,” specifically the Bernardston Elementary School. This concern was echoed by Police Chief James Palmeri, who cited a recent incident where an officer inside the school couldn’t call out on his mobile radio.

“We had an officer respond to the scene, sign off on the scene and we tried to get a status for him,” Palmeri recounted. “He could hear us but he couldn’t communicate out to us. We didn’t know if he needed help. We didn’t know if he wanted us to continue. We didn’t know the full circumstances of the call. Because we were unable to communicate with them, we tried to contact them via the cellphone, we tried to contact him in the front office. There were no answers either way.”

Shedd said the only place to get a radio signal at the elementary school is at the main entrance or close to the windows. Once first responders head deeper into the school, reception is lost.

According to both chiefs, the elementary school isn’t the only location in town where this is a problem. Palmeri said his department drove around town and found a couple of dead zones, some of which were at businesses. Palmeri said the radios were inoperable in a lot of areas, including Pioneer Valley Regional School in Northfield, “which raises big concerns.”

“If (first responders are) inside the building and something happens and they get trapped, and they put out a mayday or something like that, it could go missing or unnoticed,” Shedd said. “It’s definitely an issue for firefighters if they’re in the building, or maybe they’re in the attic or basement, and they want more hose or more water pressure. … That communication is key.”

Shedd said reception issues have also been found by the Fire Department at The Heirloom Collective marijuana dispensary on Northfield Road (Route 10) due to the building being all metal and highly insulated.

“We’ve had calls over to the pot plant,” he said, “and we’ve known that when someone goes inside they’re on their own, basically.”

According to Shedd, even with repeaters, the departments would still have some issues due to Bernardston’s geography. One problematic area would be near the upper end of Huckle Hill, where the radio signals wouldn’t reach.

Palmeri said the Deerfield Police Department recently tested its mobile repeaters with Chief Jon Hall from the Northfield Police Department in all the Pioneer Valley Regional School District facilities and found there to be “crystal-clear communication.”

The mobile radios that both departments are currently using are from Motorola, the same company they’d want to buy repeaters from. Palmeri said the Police Department used a grant to acquire these radios and it cost roughly $60,000 for all police officers to have a radio, with no cost to the town of Bernardston.

As for new repeaters, Palmeri 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 Chair Brian Keir said he’s aware that buying repeaters is the “right decision,” but there’s concern regarding the cost.

“We’re just a small town,” Keir said. “We know we have to do something. It’s just a matter of when should we.”

Keir explained it would be easier to allocate funding to the Fire Department since it needs fewer repeaters than the Police Department, with police being different since each cruiser often goes to a separate location. Keir said he wants to find a way to “give funds to everybody.”

The town has looked into grants for both departments but has yet to find one that will help with the costs of new repeaters, according to Keir. American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding is likely how the town will help with obtaining the repeaters, but Keir said Bernardston has “many needs” and that town officials are “still trying to get all the correct information.”

“They have been doing their homework,” Keir said, referring to Shedd and Palmeri. “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.


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