New Salem FD gets $6K grant for vital communications equipment, more funding needed

The Enterprise – Michael Koff
Can you hear me now? Albany County’s new $19.3 million 800-megahertz communication system means that New Salem will have to update nearly all of its communications equipment — potentially, a $100,000 hit.

NEW SCOTLAND – The New Salem Volunteer Fire Department earlier this month received a $6,000 grant from the Voorheesville Community and School Foundation to pay for two portable radios and accessories. The funding became necessary because Albany County’s new radio dispatch system went into service on May 1, making tens-of-thousands-of-dollars of New Salem’s communications equipment obsolete.

“For countless years, our radio system has been sub-par,” Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple told The Enterprise, in March 2016, explaining why he wanted to install controversial towers. “Many fire departments and ambulance squads can’t talk to each other…We’ve tried to patch it, wasting taxpayers’ money…We need this to save lives.”

The new $19.3 million 800-megahertz county-wide communication system — with three new towers on Edwards Hill Road in Rensselaerville; on Biers Road, in Coeymans; and on Jansen Lane, in Berne, as well as eight existing towers that had been upgraded — began as a complex battle, involving public-safety concerns and a desire to preserve a rural landscape save for the already-existing super-tall broadcast towers on top the Helderberg escarpment.

The Rensselaerville tower was constructed after a controversial decision in 2016. The Albany County Legislature passed a resolution in February of that year, that said the sheriff’s system would be “immune from local regulation.” There was no public hearing on the resolution. A group of Rensselaerville residents, which did not object to the need of improving emergency communications, filed an unsuccessful suit, arguing that the proper process hadn’t been used in approving the tower.

Chief Craig L. Shufelt said that the new 800-megahertz system works a lot better as it allows users to communicate with the sheriff's office, the public-safety building in Voorheesville, and other fire departments. “We can also talk to anyone across New York State,” Shufelt said, if the department is using the new  800-megahertz system.

But it’s also a lot more expensive.

The sheriff’s office, Shufelt said, supplied a few portable and mobile radios.

“But the things like our base stations, our base radios, our headsets, and the amount of portable radios that we need to use at a fire scene — we have to supply our own equipment for that, which becomes very costly,” he said.

Shufelt said that a base station can cost between $3,ooo and $4,000, and that portable radios cost about $3,ooo. He also needs seven headsets for each truck and is not yet sure of that cost. “I’m still looking into that, but these things don’t work anymore for the 800 system,” Shufelt said.

All 35 New Salem volunteer firefighters will also need new pagers, which Shufelt estimated would cost between $600 and $700 each.

“We’re probably talking $100,000 by the time we get done, but I’m not exactly sure on those figures,” Shufelt said.


The Enterprise – Michael Koff
Craig L. Shufelt, right, chief of the New Salem Volunteer Fire Department, points to a new portable radio that Tom DeLorenzo is holding. Shufelt said, due to the county’s upgrade of its communications system, his department will have to buy more compatible communications equipment that, possibly, could cost up to $100,000.


Cancer law

“You know, on top of that, there’s a new cancer law that says we have to have insurance,” Shufelt said, which will cost between $250 and $300 per firefighter.

In October 2017, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to give health-care benefits to the state’s 96,000 volunteer firefighters who have been diagnosed with certain cancers.

Volunteer firefighters are currently eligible for Workers’ Compensation if they are injured in the line of duty. Effective Jan. 1, 2019, they will also be eligible for health benefits to support treatment for lung, prostate, breast, lymphatic, hematological, digestive, urinary, neurological, reproductive system, or melanoma cancer, if:

— An entry physical exam did not show any evidence of the cancers covered by the law;

— Individuals have at least five years of service fighting fire in the interior of buildings; and

— The firefighter is currently active or within five years of his or her last active date.

The problem with the new law, Shufelt said, is that “it’s only for interior firefighters now; the past ones are probably more apt to get cancer than the newer ones.” Critics of the law note that the costs are borne by local volunteer fire departments, and call it an unfunded mandate.

Shufelt said that the new insurance cost will be rolled in the department’s  annual contract with New Scotland, and said that the town is aware of the increase.

Shufelt then concluded with another funding issue that could affect his department: the state-set tax cap.

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