ST. JOSEPH — Switching 50 police, fire and emergency services agencies from Berrien County’s VHF public safety radio system to 800 megahertz is no small task and has been in the works for almost two decades.

County Administrator Brian Dissette told county commissioners on May 20 that Chikaming Township is the first one to take advantage of low-interest loans offered by the county to help its fire department buy 800 megahertz radios.

“In addition to providing technical assistance, going out for state and federal grants and then even going to local community foundations to try to help with local grants, we have also now offered up financing for any of the townships that are struggling with the conversion to 800 MHz radios,” he said.

He asked the county commissioners talk with officials in their townships about what they need to complete the switch.

“If you’re hearing from your fire officials that they’re struggling with this, let us know,” Dissette said. “Today’s installment purchase agreement is something that we can easily reproduce and provide that assistance to other fire departments.”

According to the agreement, Chikaming Township is borrowing $9,707 from the county at an interest rate of 1.85 percent to buy 800 MHz radios, to be repaid in 84 equal monthly installments starting Aug. 1.

The county plans to dismantle the aging VHF system by Dec. 31, 2022.

After the meeting, Berrien County 911 Director Caitlin Sampsell said all of the police departments, except for Niles, switched to the 800 MHz system years ago. She said Niles decided to stay with VHF.

Initially, she said the fire departments were receiving grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to help pay for the switch. But over the past few years, their grant applications have been unsuccessful.

She said emergency personnel need pagers and radios that will operate on the Michigan Public Safety Communication System, which is 800 MHz.

In 2019, the county started offering 50/50 grants to help the fire departments and ambulance services buy 800 MHz pagers. Sampsell said the only agencies that haven’t bought 800 MHz pagers are the Sodus Township Fire Department, Pride Care Ambulance and SMCAS Ambulance.

Now, she said the county is offering low-interest loans to help the agencies buy 800 MHz mobile radios, which are used in the trucks.

That leaves the departments needing to buy portable 800 MHz radios that the firefighters carry with them. Sampsell said the Berrien County Fire Chiefs Association is seeking another FEMA grant to pay for the portable radios. The association will hear later this year if the application is successful.

Sampsell said a recent survey done by the association showed that most fire departments still need at least some 800 MHz radios.

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