Emergency radio upgrades still needed for some Butler County communities

Fairfield Township Fire Chief Tim Thomas holds one of the Motorola radios the department bought last year. Several other departments in the county are still looking for funds to purchase the expensive equipment. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

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Fairfield Township Fire Chief Tim Thomas holds one of the Motorola radios the department bought last year. Several other departments in the county are still looking for funds to purchase the expensive equipment. NICK GRAHAM / STAFF

Several years ago Butler County jurisdictions were scrambling to figure out how to pay for obsolete emergency 911 radios, and the problem persists in some communities that are still searching for funds.

About four years ago, the county faced a $19.2 million bill to replace the obsolete public safety communications system and about 3,000 radios that sheriff’s deputies, police, firefighters and others all carry. Motorola stopped making the old radios and wouldn’t service them beyond 2018.

Most local cities, townships and other jurisdictions balked at the $12.5 million radio bill — the county’s share was estimated at $3.5 million — and began looking for cheaper alternatives. The remainder of the cost covered infrastructure of the system.

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 are: Fairfield, Fairfield Twp., Middletown (police radios only), Miami University, New Miami (police only) and West Chester Twp.

A group of 14 fire departments banded together in the hopes of securing a $2 million Assistance to Firefighters Grant to buy about 530 emergency responder radios. Their contribution would have been a 10% match, but learned a year ago they were unsuccessful.

In the wake of the failed grant attempt — more than 8,300 AFG applications were submitted, requesting $1.9 billion-plus in federal assistance — several communities, namely Hamilton, Middletown, Monroe, Trenton and Hanover, Liberty and Madison townships “bit the bullet” and bought the radios. Motorola agreed to freeze the discount price while the fire departments awaited word on the grant.

Hanover Twp. Administrator Bruce Henry said after the grant fell through they were going to purchase five radios a year but “bit the bullet” because they were able to save so much on the $194,474 radio purchase.

“Trustees decided to pull the trigger, it was for safety reasons, get it done,” Henry said.

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Middletown and Madison Twp. both used federal coronavirus CARES Act money — which had restrictions tied to the pandemic — to at least partially fund their radio purchases. In Middletown CARES covered about $330,747 of the total $416,158 price. The remaining $85,411 will came out of the fire department budget.

“We could use the CARES money for portable radios we issued to an individual,” Fire Chief Paul Lolli said. “Anything additional like the onboard radios you could not use CARES money.”

Even with the discounted price Madison Twp. Fire Chief Kent Hall said it cost roughly $120,000 to buy about 35 new radios. He said he feels bad for jurisdictions even smaller than theirs.

“A radio is a radio, you turn it on, you talk in it, I think the prices on these radios are extremely blown out of proportion,” Hall said. “To put a price tag on a radio like this of $5,000 that’s just extremely high. But these companies are able to charge it because you have to have it.”

There are a host of small jurisdictions still without upgraded radios but Oxford Fire Chief John Detherage, who is president of the chiefs association, told the Journal-News, “we decided not to do another group grant this round since the first one didn’t work.”

Others like Ross Twp. are still searching for funds to cover the bill, Fire Chief Steve Miller said he recently submitted an AFG application just on behalf of the township. The township is also seeking county assistance. Butler County has $1.8 million in federal Community Development Block Grant money designated for dealing with COVID, the township submitted an application for $243,000 for 45 fire department radios.

“We’re trying as many grant avenues as we can to replace those radios,” Miller said. “Because quite honestly you’re talking upwards to $250,000 to replace the radios and Ross Twp. doesn’t have that kind of funding right now.”

He said they have not had any issues with the old radios and can still get parts and batteries but they do need to get an “encryption key” installed which will cost about $100 per device and could add a couple years life to the radios.

Butler County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Matt Franke, who is in charge of the 911 system, said to his knowledge the fire departments in College Corner, Oxford, New Miami, Seven Mile and Morgan and Ross townships have not replaced their radios. St. Clair and Wayne townships replaced theirs and Reily Twp. bought a few.

Franke also said it’s risky to rely on the encryption key because Motorola can’t guarantee it.

“There’s really not a radio situation,” Detherage said. “The radios are working fine.”

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