Several fire departments to purchase new radios after regional $2M grant request fails

Fairfield Township Fire Chief Tim Thomas holds one of the Motorola radios the department bought last year. Other departments in the county were hoping for a $2 million FEMA grant to get new radios but the application was denied. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

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Fairfield Township Fire Chief Tim Thomas holds one of the Motorola radios the department bought last year. Other departments in the county were hoping for a $2 million FEMA grant to get new radios but the application was denied. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

BUTLER COUNTY ― The Butler County Fire Chiefs Association lost a $2 million Assistance to Firefighters Grant so several communities are replacing their obsolete radios outright, and one is using federal CARES Act funds.

Liberty Twp. was the lead fire department in the grant effort by 14 departments to replace about 530 radios. Fire Chief Ethan Klussman shared the rejection letter he received from Kerry L. Thomas, director of the Preparedness Grant Division. He said the application made it to the second level of consideration but they received more than 8,300 AFG applications, requesting more than $1.9 billion in federal assistance.

“The peer review panel scores indicated that your application was generally good; however, there were areas for improvement,” Thomas wrote. “After awarding applicants with scores higher than the scores your application received, we regrettably do not have enough funding award your department at this time.”

Butler County officials found out three years ago they were facing a $19.2 million bill to replace the obsolete public safety communications system and about 3,000 radios that sheriff’s deputies, police officers, firefighters and others all carry. Motorola stopped making the old radios and said it wouldn’t service them beyond 2018.

ExploreButler County fire chiefs lose out on $2M grant to replace obsolete radios

The county negotiated a $10 million agreement for its needs and a half-price deal with Motorola for other jurisdictions. When county officials learned a 2021 software upgrade could produce “critical failures” in the old radios, several jurisdictions agreed to the bulk upgrade and purchased the new equipment. They included Fairfield, Fairfield Twp., Middletown (police radios only), Miami University, New Miami and West Chester Twp.

The Liberty Twp. trustees approved purchasing the radios and Klussman said it will cost about $200,000 for their radios and equipment. He is disappointed the grant fell through.

“We wish there was a better follow-through process from FEMA as to why grants get rejected,” Klussman said. “We felt that having a regional grant afforded us a pretty high likelihood ... that we would be somewhat successful, but unfortunately we weren’t.”

Now that the grant has been denied several departments have decided to go ahead and order the radios. When the denial came in last month, Middletown Fire Chief Paul Lolli told the Journal-News he didn’t know what he would do because he did not have funding to replace his equipment.

Since then, the city learned from the state auditor they can use federal CARES Act money to cover most of the cost. Public safety expenses were deemed to be an allowable use of the CARES Act funds.

“We’ve come to the determination that if each individual person is assigned their own radio, CARES money can be used for the individual portable radios,” Lolli said. “The equipment that we needed outside of that, we had to come up within our own budget.”

Middletown Finance Director Jake Burton said City Council was expected Tuesday to approve using CARES Act money to cover $330,747 of the total $416,158. The remaining $85,411 will come out of the fire department budget. He said the individual radio purchase is to “avoid potential cross-contamination” with shared equipment given the COVID-19 virus pandemic.

Hamilton Fire Chief Mark Mercer said he did not tap into CARES Act money when he ordered 50 portable and 19 mobile radios, costing around $278,000. He said the new directive that allowed radios to be covered didn’t change his order.

Monroe Fire Chief John Centers said he is asking his council to approve $223,277 for the new equipment. He said he isn’t recommending using CARES Act money for the purchase because they already set money aside. He said the full replacement is critical, due to the age of the equipment.

“You can’t have functionality problems with our radios,” Centers said. “They have to work the way they’re supposed to work all the time with no doubts just because of the nature of the business we’re in, that’s pretty important."

Oxford Fire Chief John Detherage, president of the Butler County Fire Chiefs Association, said they plan to meet Thursday. He said several smaller departments have indicated they might want to pursue another grant.

“I’m not going to abandon the ship yet,” Detherage said. “With us, we’re in a situation where we only get so much money and whatever I can save, it’s money I can use for other things.”

Detherage, Ross Twp. Fire Chief Steve Miller and Morgan Twp. Chief Jeff Galloway all told the Journal-News their radios work fine.

“We were told that the radios were going to stop working, the system was going to stop working in ’18, they still worked. We were told they were going to stop working at the end of ’19, they still work,” Galloway said.

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