Fire departments in Douglas County received a big boost this week - $678,240 that will help them communicate with dispatchers while responding to fires.

The Alexandria Fire Department applied for the grant through the Federal Emergency Management Agency's Assistance to Firefighters program.

The money will be used to purchase portable and vehicle radios for all 11 volunteer fire departments in the county.

The new equipment will help firefighters' communicate using the new 800-megahertz digital radio system.

The total cost of the project is $753,360. The federal share, $678,240, will cover 90 percent and the remaining cost, $75,120, will be picked up locally.

"This grant is huge for these departments to be able to purchase this equipment to update and be in compliance with the communications interoperability requirements of the national response agency," noted Dennis Stark, Alexandria fire marshal and emergency management director.

"It's a big boost," agreed Bill Thoennes, Alexandria assistant fire chief. "It would cost us [the Alexandria Fire Department] between $100,000 and $110,000 to equip all our vehicles with this equipment and to get the hand-held units. So to have the state and federal government pick up 90 percent of the cost means a lot, especially during this budget crunch."

Each agency designated the number of radio units they needed in the application.

After the units have been received, the departments will be trained on how to use the equipment properly, Stark said.




The Kensington Fire Department is a double winner. It will not only receive a piece of the funding for the 800-megahertz system but it will also receive a separate grant of $117,159 for much-needed new equipment.

The 25-member department will use the money to purchase 13 air packs, a compressor, 22 air masks, 26 air bottles and a thermal imaging camera, according to Fire Chief Joey Nessman.

"This grant is very important to us," said Nessman.

The camera, which is capable of distinguishing even slight temperature differences in a burning structure, will have dozens of uses, from picking up a fire's hot spots to locating a person trapped inside.

The department's air bottles are nearing their 15-year lifespan and need to be replaced, Nessman said.

The department has never had a compressor before. It had to go to Alexandria. Now it can replace that travel time with more training, said Nessman.

And that fits right in with the whole purpose of the grant program - to improve firefighting operations and safety.

Federal grants totaling more than $4.3 million will go to fire departments across the country. The money will be used for training, equipment, protective gear, wellness and fitness, and health and safety modifications to stations and facilities.

"Fire departments and first responders are critical to the well-being of our communities," noted Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, in a news release announcing the funding. "These funds will provide our emergency personnel with the important tools they need to do their jobs and ensure the safety of Minnesotans."