Fire Shows Need for New Comm System

Large grass fire underscores need for improved communication system, officials say.


CARSON -- Sunday's grass fire was large enough that 18 different fire departments were called to assist - yet another reason, some officials say, why the proposed countywide 800 megahertz communications system is needed.

"This was a perfect example," said Pottawattamie County Supervisor Loren Knauss. "Every spring, grass fires occur like clockwork, and a communication system that can link all the county departments, as well as additional departments as needed, is the key to public safety."

Added Terry Hummel, the county's emergency management director: "A more mature 911 system, no doubt about it, would have helped facilitate (Sunday's) response."

The updated communications system is being pursued by county officials as a means of making quicker contact between the various fire departments and law enforcement agencies when mutual aid is required.

When requesting mutual aid under the existing communications system, departments must spend valuable time contacting other agencies instead of being able to make direct contact.

The 800 MHz system may cost $15 million, Knauss said earlier this month.

Carson Fire Chief Jeff Sower, who served as the incident commander at Sunday's massive grass fire, said while the operation went fine with what the county has, the 800 MHz system would have been helpful.

"It would've helped out a lot if we had more channels," Sower said. "We would've been able to do several other things, such as talk to law enforcement if we needed."

Lewis Township Fire Chief Tom Blackburn said given the size of the fire and working with what they have, coordinating the different departments went very well. "It couldn't have been much better from that standpoint."

Knauss said the new system would allow multiple users on the same frequency, and could provide around 20 frequencies to the various agencies, compared to three or four frequencies currently available.

Blackburn said one problem he was informed about following Sunday's fire were dead spots in the communication system, especially when firefighters were down in the valleys.

Hummel said there were dead spots in the areas where the firefighters were for both radios and cell phones.

The new 800 MHz communications system would cover far more of the area than the existing system, Knauss said - up to 95 percent of the county.

Sower, who has never coordinated an operation as large as Sunday's, said coordinating 18 different departments was a challenge.

"It was extremely overwhelming to make sure we kept units in front of the fire," he said, "which was extremely difficult because I couldn't see the entire (fire)."

Hummel credited the "independent actions" of farmers and other citizens, who came forth to battle the blaze, for "saving the day."

"They played a vital role," he said of the community members who helped, "because as the fire moved along, you added more and more departments, and had a lot of people operating over a large distance."

Having so many firefighters spread out over a wide area is yet another reason to have the 800 MHz system in place.

"A grass fire can cover anywhere from one mile to two miles or more, versus a structure fire where everyone is at that location."

When the winds kick in on a grass fire, Knauss added, the firefighters will be "left playing catch-up" if they don't have an updated system in place that can handle a large amount of radio traffic.

"We've had a lot of situations in the last three, four months where an 800 MHz system would've made responses more efficient, and this is just another example," Knauss said.

Fortunately, Hummel said, it was the coordinated effort of trained professionals that brought the fire under control.

"This group of people was able to stop a very difficult fire that could have raged on a lot longer," he said.