Bernardston using $74K grant, ARPA money to boost first responders’ radio signal


For the Recorder

Published: 03-27-2023 7:29 PM

BERNARDSTON — A $74,411 federal grant is helping the town address safety concerns by improving radio operability for first responders.

The money, awarded through the United States Department of Agriculture’s Emergency Rural Health Care grant program, covers 55% of the cost to purchase and install nine Motorola repeaters — a device that boosts the signal from first responders’ mobile radios — in Bernardston’s police cruisers and fire trucks. With the total cost being $135,000, the Selectboard approved using American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funding to make up the difference.

According to a statement from Town Coordinator Lou Bordeaux, “the town’s population and rural character made it eligible for a grant to cover 55% of the cost for this equipment, which met the USDA’s purpose of improving rural health care services and access to them, as well as helping to better prepare a community for a future pandemic.” Given multiple locations in town where radio coverage is limited, the addition of the repeaters will ensure “uninterrupted communications in emergency medical situations” when well-coordinated, timely responses are critical.

Each repeater costs roughly $15,000, with four being given to the Fire Department and five to the Police Department. They are expected to arrive in about five months.

Fire Chief Peter Shedd previously explained that without repeaters, his firefighters have “limited radio operability inside buildings,” specifically at Bernardston Elementary School. This concern was echoed by Police Chief James Palmeri who, speaking in December 2022, cited an 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 at the time. “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.”

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“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 in December. “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.”

Shedd said although there will still be some dead zones due to Bernardston’s geography, these new repeaters will significantly boost the signal of first responders’ radios around town.

“The funding provided by the USDA’s Emergency Rural Health Care Grant will enhance public safety throughout the town,” Bordeaux said in a statement. “Providing our public safety departments with the tools that they need to respond to emergencies is a top priority for the Bernardston Selectboard.”

Bordeaux also thanked Blythe Robinson, senior project manager with Capital Strategic Solutions, a Marlborough-based company that applies for grants on Bernardston’s behalf. Bordeaux said Robinson’s “insights and support” were essential in securing the USDA grant.

Once the departments have received their repeaters, Shedd and Palmeri said they plan to hire Aaron Budine, a member of the Fire Department who operates a business called 413 Upfitting. The business installs lighting and electronics, such as repeaters, on emergency service vehicles.