Wildfire panel looks at emergency radio system
Firefighters sometimes need 2 or 3 communicators
DENVER – Although it’s water, not fire, that’s plaguing Colorado at the moment, state legislators are determined to come up with better ways to address the growing threat of wildfires.
As they do, state Sen. Ellen Roberts, R-Durango, thinks the top priority should be the state’s troubled emergency radio system.
Bob Harvey illustrated the problem Monday, Sept. 23, at a meeting of the Legislature’s Wildfire Matters Review Committee – a committee that began this year.
Harvey, chief of the Black Forest Fire Department, was one of the first people to respond to the fire that destroyed 486 homes in June near Colorado Springs. He went out with two radios – standard equipment these days for firefighters who need to talk to local and federal officials.
Then he was handed a third radio so he could talk to the military aircraft that were the first to provide air support. But the batteries were dead.
“We can look up in the sky and not know whose helicopter it is,” Harvey said. “It’s a problem.”
For Roberts, the technological flaws of the radio system are the first item the Legislature should address.
“You can do with fewer (firefighters), but if you’re not able to communicate, you can have thousands of people and not be able to deal with the emergency,” she said when questioning Harvey.
Paul Cooke, director of the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said he did not know how much it would cost to fix the radio problem, but he expects it would take “significant sums.”
The problem has festered for a decade, when the state converted to a digital radio system to help its local agencies communicate with each other during major emergencies. At the time, the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks had just happened, and the newly formed U.S. Department of Homeland Security was handing out grants for states to bolster their emergency response systems.
But in Colorado, the grant money dried up before every local police and fire department could be upgraded properly.
Also, the digital system doesn’t work well in mountainous areas. That’s one of the reasons federal agencies still use a VHF radio system – and why Harvey and other wildland firefighters need two radios.
“It’s a good system for much of the Front Range. It’s unfortunately a problem in areas of the state where we have mountainous terrain,” Cooke said in an interview.
Roberts has not decided how to approach the radio problem yet, but she might try to pressure the governor’s office to act instead of sponsoring a bill.
“I don’t think a legislative committee has to pass bills to be effective,” Roberts said.
Nevertheless, the new wildfire committee has the authority to sponsor up to eight bills. Its members will meet again Oct. 1 and Oct. 30 to finalize its list of bills for the 2014 session, which starts in January.
Wildfire issues could be a major topic of the session.
Gov. John Hickenlooper has a separate wildfire task force that is due to issue its report Monday, Sept. 30.
The group is looking at insurance and building code issues in forest communities, and its members have been divided about whether to recommend a statewide building code and levy a fee on homebuyers to pay for forest thinning. Some of the controversial recommendations would need approval by the Legislature.