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Wednesday, June 25, 2003 -- Radio communication among area police, fire and emergency medical services will improve greatly, thanks to a $1.3 million grant announced Monday.

The grant to the Western Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council was one of 39 totaling more than $32 million awarded by Gov. Mitt Romney to 39 cities, towns, regional groups and state agencies. The grants come from $42.7 million in federal funds funneled through the state for protecting homeland security.

Police agencies in Hampshire and Hampden counties have been able to communicate with each other for 20 years over the WMLEC radio system, said Northampton Police Chief Russell Sienkiewicz, vice president of the council.

"We really needed to expand our interoperability to Franklin County and Berkshire County," as well as to area fire departments and ambulance services, he said.

Right now, if, say, the chemical decontamination unit housed at the Northampton Fire Department were needed at a disaster in Whately or Greenfield, "We can't talk to them," he said.

Public safety officials would also like the system to be able to handle simultaneous emergencies in several parts of the region. But since the grant is less than the $2 million they applied for, WMLEC officials will have to determine how much of the project can be implemented now, said Sienkiewicz.

The federal money is intended to improve response to terrorist attacks such as those on Sept. 11, 2001. The new radio system would also be invaluable should a major hurricane or other natural disaster strike western Massachusetts.

"Clearly, the benefit is in any type of emergency," Sienkiewicz said.

A separate grant of $177,720 was awarded to Western Regional Fire Defense Inc., a year-old organization comprising 80 fire departments in Hampshire, Franklin and Berkshire counties.

The money will be used for a truck that can resupply air bottles worn by firefighters at emergency scenes, said Cummington Fire Chief Bernard Forgea.

Western Massachusetts Electric Co. has already donated the truck, and fund-raising is going on to purchase a booster pump to fill bottles with uncontaminated air. The grant will equip the truck with self-contained breathing apparatus, portable radios, thermal imagers and other protective gear, Forgea said.

Hampshire County fire departments have had access to an aging, much-used air-supply truck housed at the Goshen Fire Department. Forgea said the new truck will be available for use throughout the three counties and may be based in Greenfield.

Another homeland-security grant of $781,085 was awarded to Springfield. That city had not received word Tuesday which of several requested items this grant is for, said Nick Breault, aide to Springfield Mayor Michael Albano.

The only other grant in western Massachusetts was $205,690, which went to the Berkshire Law Enforcement Council.

Kay Moran can be reached at [email protected].

Nice to see Western Mass getting some $$$. I just wish WMELC would create a regional tactical team and tactical communications team like NEMLEC has.
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