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Idaho Falls Fire gets $1 million in CARES funds to replace outdated radios

Idaho Falls

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IDAHO FALLS — Upgrades to the Idaho Falls Fire Department’s communication systems are in the works.

Radios with failing batteries, incompatible systems and outdated electronics have been an issue for local firefighters, Idaho Falls Fire Department spokeswoman Kerry Hammon said. Fortunately, funding from the CARES Act covered the $1 million for an upgrade.

“Prior to COVID, the department was making plans to purchase new radios from our equipment budget over a three-year timeframe,” Hammon said. “The CARES funding allowed us to purchase all the radios at one time and quickly get them into the hands of first responders.”

Currently, IFFD utilizes radios bought in 2009. Of the approximately 60 old radios, 40 work. During three separate shifts, 123 employees share the radios. Hammon said sharing the radios was not ideal before, but the pandemic only made worse, as the department was using more time and measures to keep the radios sanitized.

Emergency radios can also be programmed to a specific person, allowing an injured or trapped firefighter to call for help in an emergency. Hammon said with firefighters sharing radios, IFFD currently programs the radios to a single firetruck or another emergency vehicle. Firefighters find this concerning since if they hit the emergency button, it’s difficult to know who specifically needs help and their location.

“Safety of the public and our first responders is our first priority during an incident,” Hammon said. “It is critical that we get to our personnel quickly when they need us.”

The department also found issues communicating with other departments and agencies by having such old radios. This summer, a brush fire raged along U.S. Highway 20 and required a response from IFFD, Idaho National Laboratory Fire Department and the Bureau of Land Management. IFFD’s current radios would not let them communicate directly with the other agencies.

“In order for the incident commanders from each jurisdiction to communicate and coordinate resources, they had to meet face-to-face rather than by radio,” Hammon said. “This creates lag times in communication and is not the best practice approach for communicating during a pandemic.”

With the rising concern, the department asked during an Oct. 8 Idaho Falls City Council meeting to approve the use of the CARES funds. It took the council only minutes to approve the purchase after hearing the department’s ongoing struggles with effective communication.

The department has bought 130 new Motorola radios as well as a mobile repeater that increases signal strength. Hammon said training and programming on the new radios would happen over the next few weeks. Firefighters should be using them on calls starting in December.

“(We’re) very relieved we can move forward with this and get the new radios much quicker,” Hammon said.

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