State awards Fulton County $469k grant; Enhanced first responder communication equipment eyed

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JOHNSTOWN — Fulton County was awarded a $469,321 New York State Interoperable Communications Grant on Wednesday, money aimed at enhancing communication equipment for first responders throughout the state.

Fulton County Emergency Management Services Coordinator Steve Santa Maria said his office applies for the grant every year, which is paid for from cellular surcharge revenue.

“The grant is used to support the emergency communications system with money, that’s our handheld radio system as well as our microwave radio system,” Santa Maria said.

Gov. Kathy Hochul announced the award Wednesday as part of $45 million in state grant funding awarded to counties throughout the state for the purpose of funding projects to improve communications infrastructure, purchase new equipment and technology upgrades land mobile radio systems, helping different first responder agencies on the local, state and federal levels to communicate between each other.

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“One of the keys to successful emergency response is a communications structure that all responders can depend on to relay important information and improve overall response activities,” Hochul said in a released statement. “This grant will ensure our firefighters, police officers, EMTs and paramedics, and anyone who responds to a disaster will have the tools and training they need to communicate more effectively and efficiently.”

The State Interoperable Communications Grant, administered by the Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Services, has awarded $472 million to municipalities over nine rounds since December 2011.

Neighboring Montgomery County was awarded $374,781 from the same disbursement Wednesday, Saratoga County received $723,064 and Schenectady County was awarded $608,673.

Santa Maria said the State Interoperable Communications Grant has provided Fulton County with millions of dollars over the past 10 years, which has helped the county to build-up its communications infrastructure including a recent project called “Vcall and Vtac”, which added new frequencies to the county’s radio towers, enabling local first responders to easily communicate with federal officials, such as the Federal Aviation Administration. Santa Maria said that kind of capability will come in handy in the event of plane crash, which has occurred in Fulton County a few times over the last decade.

“Along the way, this grant program has enabled us to really improve the radio system in Fulton County,” he said. “We’ve developed new tower sites, such as the 95-foot tower site behind the sheriff’s office. A new communications shelter at the Woodworth Lake tower site. We’ve added microwave equipment to create intraoperative capability with Montgomery County, Fulton County, Saratoga County and Herkimer County to our west. We’ve made vast improvements to that microwave system.

Santa Maria said using microwave radio communication is superior to relying on cellular phones for first responders, because the range of the county’s equipment enables clearer communications that are secure to the channels being used and the handheld radio equipment is far more durable, able to withstand the heat of being used in close proximity to building fires and rugged enough to handle adverse weather conditions.

He said he’s not certain yet exactly how the $469,321 will be spent, but one possibility may be buying new handheld radios, which haven’t been replaced for county first responders in about 18 years. He said other projects he will look at could be siting a new communications tower to replace one of the existing towers that is at 99% of its frequency capacity, although he said that would cost more than this grant alone could pay for.

Santa Maria said he’s grateful the state has remained committed to using those funds to improve communications for first responders, which is vitally important to saving lives during emergency situations.

“This program has saved local taxpayers millions of dollars since it was started,” he said.

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