Swanton Needs Robust Network
The all-volunteer force of the Swanton Village Fire Department serve within a challengingly diverse 65-square-miles area. Swanton is located in the northwestern corner of the state bordering Lake Champlain on its west and the Canadian province of Quebec to its north. The Missisquoi River flows through Swanton and I-89 borders the town to the east. In addition to fire service calls, the department must be prepared for year-round water rescue, high-angle rescue, and hazardous materials calls. With such diverse terrain comes communication challenges.
“At this point, we don’t rely on mobile phones to communicate,” said Fire Chief Tim Girard. “The backbone of our communication is our two-way radio system and pagers. We have fairly reliable cell service, but there are signal gaps.”
Those signal gaps also extend to the LMR network. The department has worked to address these dead areas by installing additional mobile repeaters. Unfortunately, lack of funding has limited how much the department has been able to do. Calls are dispatched through the St. Albans Police Department. Crews rely on fire station personnel when more information is needed on the scene. For example, personnel on a hazardous materials call may need more information on a chemical compound. They will call the fire station and someone will look up the information needed and transmit that back to the scene. Girard foresees a time when there will be laptops or tablets in their response vehicles and personnel can access information via the internet directly from the scene. However, to do that will take a robust broadband network and funds to buy the needed equipment.
Girard acknowledges that while everyone has a smart phone and Active911, the priority is to get the call out first through the LMR system and not the broadband network. Active911 is a digital messaging system that delivers alarms and maps instantly to first responders, including tracking who is responding to a call in real time. With the current paging system, Girard does not know which personnel are responding to a call until they show up at the station.
“Uncertainty right now is a big factor in determining what the department might do in the future regarding our communications. We work to stay informed about projects like FirstNet, but also do research on what is developing in two-way radio systems and how other departments are communicating,” said Girard.
This proactive approach to research and training has helped ensure a highly trained volunteer force is responding to calls. Most of the 37-member team hold several firefighter certifications. Two-thirds of the department have both Firefighter I and II certification. The diverse terrain the team covers means they could be mounting a high angle rescue of a farmer from a silo one day and the next day be responding to a hazardous materials incident on I-89. Team preparation includes maintaining training in hazardous materials operations, highway safety, and water rescue practices.
Staying prepared for the future, Girard likes that his department will have the option of accessing the Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network when it is built-out by FirstNet and AT&T. Girard anticipates his department will take advantage of future developments in technology. Having an affordable, reliable and secure broadband network available will make that much easier to do.