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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane Valley Fire Department upgraging alert systems

The current radio system in Spokane Valley Fire Station 8 at 2110 N. Wilbur Road was installed in 2007.  (Nina Culver/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Nina Culver For The Spokesman-Review

The Spokane Valley Fire Department is preparing to significantly upgrade its alerting systems in each fire station that go off when a call has been received, replacing what in many cases is decades old technology.

“We’ve got systems out there that are homemade systems that date back to the ’70s,” said Jeff Bordwell, interim deputy chief of administrative services. “Some of our radio boards at our stations look like a Radio Shack yard sale. It’s an antiquated system. It does still work today, but we’re concerned about the age and functionality.”

Since the stations were all built at different times, each station has a slightly different notification system. That, coupled with the age of the components, makes the systems difficult to maintain and troubleshoot.

The way it works is that calls are sent to the individual stations from dispatch via radio towers. When the signal is received at the intended station, a loud alarm sounds and all lights instantly turn on to full brightness. When that happens in the middle of the night, firefighters are jolted awake. This triggers a surge of adrenaline in their systems, Bordwell said.

“Depending on what station you’re in, it can be four times a shift,” he said. “You do it time and time and time again and it adds up and really beats your body up.”

The new U.S. Digital Designs Phoenix G2 system that will be installed by RACOM in the department’s 10 fire stations will have a lighting and sound system that gradually but quickly increases to full intensity in the hopes of lessening the shock to firefighters’ systems, Bordwell said.

“If we can take just a little bit of stress off of their body, that’s a good thing,” he said. “We’re trying to be more sensitive to our firefighters’ needs. It’s going to be a more sensitive system to waking people.”

The department also hopes that the new system will speed up response times, Bordwell said. There is an average delay of about 30 seconds in getting the information from the dispatch center to the individual fire stations via radio towers set up throughout the county. The new system will be hardwired into the stations via ethernet, which should significantly reduce that time lag, Bordwell said.

“It should improve it,” he said. “We’re hoping that the ethernet port will be more direct.”

Each station will keep its current radio signal activated notification system to be a backup in case the new system goes down, Bordwell said.

The cost of the new system is estimated to be just under $900,000 and should be installed by the end of the year.

“We’re already working on designs,” Bordwell said.

One of the benefits of the system is that it’s easy to expand. It includes a communications gateway that is linked directly to the county’s dispatch system and then to each fire station via a station controller. The communications gateway can accommodate large numbers of station controllers, which means that other departments in Spokane County could easily hook into the system if they want to, Bordwell said. Numerous fire districts have already reached out to ask questions about the new system, he said.

“There is an interest countywide,” he said. “We’re not the only ones looking for upgrades.”