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Norwich starts work on fire study recommendations

Norwich — City leaders are starting work on the top priorities listed in the new in-depth study of the city’s fire services, seeking cost estimates to upgrade the antiquated radio communications and dispatch systems.

On Monday, the City Council considered a resolution to authorize City Manager John Salomone to work with city emergency response officials to obtain preliminary cost estimates for equipment and software improvements for the fire dispatch and communications system. The council then voted to refer the task to the three-member Public Safety Committee.

“I really wanted everybody to know we’re all behind the dispatch upgrade,” Mayor Peter Nystrom, a co-sponsor of the resolution, said. “This is number one. Our people aren’t safe.”

The McGrath Consulting Group’s 194-page report on Norwich fire services cited the “dangerous incompatibility” of the current fire radio system and the antiquated dispatch protocols. Dispatchers must take several steps to process a call, as responders from the volunteer and city departments are on different radio frequencies. Some responders jot down response time data by hand.

Fire chiefs and firefighters interviewed by the consultants expressed frustration that the long-standing problem has gone uncorrected. After the report was presented to the council on Feb. 16, fire chiefs said they have been complaining for years about the poor communications system, including dropped calls and inability to communicate with one another. But the costly upgrades kept getting put off in the always tight city budget.

A partial solution, however, emerged with the city police department – which had suffered from the same problem for decades – joining the state police telecommunications network in 2019. Police Chief Patrick Daley said Monday the system works great.

The fire departments can join the same network. The transmission antennae are in place. The city would need to purchase portable and mobile radios and pagers for the volunteer firefighters.

Nystrom said the city might be able to use a portion of the federal coronavirus relief grant to upgrade the emergency response system.

More complicated and costly would be the dispatch center upgrades, with new software and protocols needed.

Salomone said before committing to the dispatch upgrade, the City Council might want to consider the consulting group’s other top priority, hiring a fire commissioner to oversee the administration and coordination of training, equipment, personnel matters and operations of the five volunteer and one paid fire departments.

Salomone said he is working on a job description for what would be a new city department head position to presented to the council for consideration. If the council agrees with the recommendation, the commissioner would be the one to coordinate the dispatch upgrade as part of the oversight duties.

The consultants recommended the fire commissioner integrate the volunteer and paid departments, which have had a history of tensions and friction.

“What is fundamentally needed is that these six agencies form the foundation for an integrated team,” the McGrath report stated. “Volunteers will not be replaced by career members; rather each group will become unified in their commitment to ensure individuals needing help receives it from whoever can get to them first. The integration of the six service providers needs to occur as a step process overseen by a single individual, independent from any of the six organizations.”

c.bessette@theday.com

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