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State grants totaling $18.1 million will aid emergency response in the region

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Jefferson, Lewis, St. Lawrence and Franklin counties will receive $18.1 million in state homeland security grants to upgrade outdated emergency communications systems.

The grants, announced Tuesday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, amount to $6 million each for Jefferson and Lewis counties, $2,679,690 for St. Lawrence County and $3,407,921 for Franklin County. The funding through the state Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services is intended to improve emergency communications with other counties.

Jefferson County Emergency Management Director Joseph D. Plummer said that the ability of first responders in different counties to talk to each other is currently nonexistent, and that a lot of work lies ahead to improve communications.

“Our current system is from the early 1970s,” he said. “We’re talking years, not months because we have to build towers, which involves land acquisition and the lengthy process involved with that, system development and implementation. I’m hopeful it can be accomplished in three to four years.”

Mr. Plummer said the project will probably amount to $20 million to $25 million. An engineer is reviewing the system’s needs, he said.

Keith J. Zimmerman, interim emergency services director for St. Lawrence County, described as “very limited” the ability of emergency responders to communicate with neighboring counties.

“Department to department is always a problem,” he said. “Some are using very high frequencies, some are using ultra high frequency channels, so it either requires specialized equipment to mix channels or having an assigned, fixed channel on a radio and some kind of mobile repeater.”

Mr. Zimmerman said emergency situations that require communication with responders in neighboring counties do not happen all the time, but often enough to necessitate upgrades.

“The closer you are to a shared boundary, the more often it happens that your closest responder is in a neighboring county,” he said.

The $2.6 million grant will allow the county to hire a consultant to assess needs and lay the groundwork for emergency communications upgrades that have been a long time coming, he said.

“At that point we’ll have a better idea about the total cost,” he said. “Then we’ll be able to do the things we need to obtain licensing and those types of things and have a delivery system to bridge those gaps across the northern part of the state.”

Lewis County is a little further ahead of the other counties in improving communications with its neighbors, said Emergency Management Director James M. Martin, but the county is still far from having all the necessary upgrades in place.

“In the northern zone, we are all trying to put things together and figure out how much we can afford,” he said.

Mr. Martin said counties could partner with Central New York counties which are already part of a statewide interoperability system, but the cost could be too high.

“The bigger we go, the more money it will cost,” he said. He said the $6 million grant will help push upgrades along, but it will not pay for the whole project. He said part of the county’s cost will also be to move its dispatch center out of the Lewis County jail, which will require building construction or renovation. Radio channel licensing, land acquisition for towers and tower construction will also factor into the total cost, he said.

“We’re going to have a good system when we get done, but it’s going to cost some dollars to get there,” he said. “Nobody throughout the years put much money into their radio systems. They were working fine and you could get by with what you had, but the equipment is all wearing out now. Everybody is looking at a major cost.”

Jefferson County also will receive a separate grant for $81,781 to upgrade equipment for swift water rescue, Mr. Plummer said.

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