LACONIA — The reliability and efficiency of communications among the 35 member communities in the Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association will be enhanced with a planned $860,000 equipment upgrade taking place this summer.
Chief Coordinator Jonathan Goldman and Deputy Chief Paul Steele have spent two years putting together a package to replace outdated equipment, some of which is approaching 20 years old.
The Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid Association provides dispatching and coordinates responses to fire apparatus, field responders, and ambulances within an 1,800-square-mile district.
“When I interviewed for this job over two years ago, the board of directors and executive committee made clear that this was a problem because they were plagued by maintenance and repair costs, and there was a clear directive when I arrived that it was going to be a project that needed to be done sooner rather than later,” Goldman said in an interview.
He credited Steele with doing “yeoman’s work” in putting together the plan, saying, “He probably turned gray on it.”
The current communications system was put together with grant money and repurposed equipment, Goldman said.
“The system, when it’s operating at 100 percent, there’s no problem reaching the responders,” he said, “but, because of the system’s age and the remoteness of some of the equipment, we don’t have the best radio coverage.”
Communications use both low-band and high-band frequencies, with the low band prone to weather disruptions. The age of the equipment, along with 11 radio sites on mountaintops, also leads to system failures, and there is no way, other than “educated guesses,” to pinpoint where the problem is.
“To mobilize a power crew to a remote site, and then if they find it’s not at that site, we’ve only accomplished narrowing it down,” Goldman said, adding that getting to a tower at the top Mount Belknap in winter is difficult. “You can’t just throw equipment into a car and drive up.”
In looking to solve the problem, Goldman and Steele were “very mindful of the end cost to the individual communities,” the chief said. They looked into the background and experience of the vendors to be sure they were reliable and sustainable, as well as looking at pricing that would not bring an undue burden for the members.
“They are fire chiefs who have to answer to their local selectmen and their taxpayers,” Goldman said. "Fortunately, the solution we chose is the least-expensive, as well.”
Eastern Communications of Long Island, New York, and ALL-Comm Technologies of Revere, Massachusetts, provided a good price because ALL-Comm was looking to get into the New Hampshire market, Goldman said. This project will be the largest ever deployed in New England.
“They made this their flagship account, and priced it very well,” he said. “The vendor is excited to get into New Hampshire, and they committed to putting in a shop in New Hampshire because they want to become part of the community and bring their services to other public safety departments in the area.”
Goldman said that, while the association could have leased or financed the project anywhere, they wanted to keep the money in the area, and Franklin Savings Bank was willing to meet the terms of the other finance companies to do that with a seven-year loan.
“The most important part,” Goldman said, “is we’re going to pay for this project with a slight increase to the towns — about $1,200 per year for four years — using our cash flow and reserve funds to have as little impact as possible.”
Member towns already contribute to the reserve fund for the replacement of equipment, and, after the four-year period of higher costs, will return to their current contributions, Goldman said.
The cost would have been higher if they chose to switch from analog to digital signals, and it also would have required the replacement of all the radios, at additional cost to the communities.
Goldman said there is only one company offering digital pagers, while staying with analog accommodates pagers from several companies.
Traditionally, public safety departments have relied upon Motorola for communications, and the towns can keep their current equipment. The new project will replace the infrastructure only with radios by Tait Communications, a New Zealand company that distributes through Harris Corporation, Motorola’s top competitor in North America.
“Motorola shops have been great to work with, and there’s no service problem at all, but it came down to pricing and features and benefits,” Goldman said. “Subscribers don’t need to make any changes at all; this is basically on the back end that nobody sees.”
The project will include higher-speed fiber optics and remote system monitoring. Just replacing the current antennas and feed lines will create a noticeable difference, Goldman said, but putting in a district-wide simulcast system will make it possible for someone in Warren to talk to someone in Strafford. The current system uses three repeaters to create a simulcast capability.
The remote monitoring will mean that, if a component is operating at 50 percent capacity or failing, a message will go to headquarters identifying the problem.
All-Comm has given a “very aggressive” deadline of having the system up and running by September. Goldman said equipment will go to four mountaintop locations over the summer.
“I’m happy if it’s done by the time snow flies,” he commented.
He expressed gratitude to the board of directors and the executive committee for approving the proposal.
“It’s got to be tough to have someone say that, for $900,000, we would solve all the problems … but they gave us the tools to do the job,” he said.
Ron Magoon, president and chief executive officer of Franklin Savings Bank, said, “We are proud to work with the great people at Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid on this project. Whenever we can help an organization that does such important work in our communities, it is truly an honor for us.”