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Westmoreland: Ridge brings money for county radios

Rich Cholodofsky
| Thursday, Sept. 25, 2003

GREENSBURG -- U.S. Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge will be in Westmoreland County today to hand over a check for nearly $6 million, money that is earmarked to buy radios for first responders so they can access a new emergency dispatch system.

Ridge is scheduled to appear at a gathering this afternoon at the county's Public Safety Building on Donohoe Road in Hempfield Township, east of Greensburg.

Rachael Sunbarger, a spokeswoman for the Homeland Security department, said Wednesday that Ridge will tour the county's 911 operations center before officially handing over a $5.9 million grant.

The federal grant money will pay for equipment needed to complete the upgrade of the county's dispatch system to high-band radio frequencies designed to improve communications for first responders.

The bulk of the money is earmarked for the purchase of new radios needed to outfit local police, fire and ambulance companies so they will have access to the county's new 800-megahertz system.

Earlier this year, the county approved the $12 million project, but borrowed only enough money to pay for the construction of radio towers and other equipment needed to upgrade the emergency dispatch system.

That money, though, did not include funds for the purchase of about 4,000 radios that first responders needed to access the system. A federal grant secured last year provided about $2 million toward the purchase of radios, but that figure was expected to pay for only about 25 percent of what is needed to outfit all of the county's first responders.

County officials initially said fire, police and ambulance companies would have to come up with the cash themselves to buy the radios.

Meanwhile, county officials looked to secure grant funding. The county was one of 53 applicants earlier this year for a portion of money set aside by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

County officials earlier this month learned they had received the federal grant.

"Now this makes our system complete," county Commissioner P. Scott Conner said. "It makes our system seamless and incredible."

The county expects its new 800-MHz frequencies to be online next summer. The system, which accesses high-band radio channels, is designed to improve communication between 911 dispatchers and first responders as well as to improve talk between rescue workers.

"It's going to be a great help in getting our system up and running. It will help every municipality and every volunteer emergency agency in the county," Commissioner Tom Ceraso said.

Commissioner Tom Balya said the federal money for radios wasn't even on the county's radar when the conversion to an 800-MHz system was conceived several years ago.

"It speaks volumes about the quality of our project," Balya said.

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