CONWAY — When Conway police and fire officials applied for a large grant to upgrade their dispatch center, they kept their expectations in check.
But last Tuesday, Conway Police Chief Ed Wagner confirmed that New Hampshire Homeland Security had granted them $375,000 for the upgrades.
Emergency services has been struggling with dead spots. But before the town could add antennas and repeaters, it was necessary to update the obsolete, 13-year-old dispatch console system in the police station.
Conway Village firefighters were having problems sending and receiving messages from dispatch. The only solution would be to add an additional tower site for the fire departments.
According to Conway Village Fire Chief Steve Solomon, "We started this process to figure out how we could improve dispatch, the fire communications and the police communications all in one package," said Solomon.
He said the issue is caused by a combination of old equipment, location of existing towers, trees growing around them and lack of funding.
Wagner told Conway selectmen at their June 19 meeting that this grant was one "we were not expecting to get."
Wagner said when they applied, Homeland Security said there was only a small chance of getting it, as they prefer to give grants for dispatch centers that cover multiple jurisdictions.
"The way we proposed it, it is a multi-jurisdictional approach to the grant because it may not be for police, but it certainly is for fire," said Wagner.
Official notice of the award has not been made but Wagner told the Sun last Thursday he had gotten a preliminary email from Homeland Security saying they had more money than they thought they'd have and so were able to fund the grant.
In addition to covering Conway, the Center Conway Fire Department also covers Eaton, the Conway Village Fire Department goes to Albany and Livermore Falls, and North Conway Fire goes to Hale's Location.
Solomon said on Friday that "we were all but told we wouldn't be receiving this, but we felt it was worth continuing with the grant application process anyway."
Wagner said the money was obtained in the second round of funding, and that they got the amount they had put in for.
"I was really excited," said Wagner. "Big thank you to Chief Solomon and Lt. (George) Walker for spending hours and hours putting the grant together and submitting it."
Walker, who had been Conway's emergency services director, recently retired from the force.
Solomon said he and Walker probably put 80 hours apiece into the application.
Another grant has been submitted to help pay for towers and repeaters.
Solomon said they also applied for a Northern Borders Commission grant for the towers, and the town should hear back in the fall, with the work to be done next winter.
The cost of the entire upgrade could total from $600,000-$1.3 million. The cost of the project has not gone out to bid yet.
The money from the grant might be disbursed in the fall for the dispatch upgrades.
Solomon said the grant will replace stations where the dispatchers sit as well as the computers and radios in the back room that make the consoles function.
Asked where the repeaters might go, Solomon said that's still up in the air. Sites under consideration are Oak Hill in Madison, where the police department's radio now is located, Pine Hill and a site in Fryeburg, Maine. Smaller antennas could be added at Kennett High School in Conway and Memorial Hospital in North Conway.
The upgraded system will allow for "simulcast" and "voting" radio networks. Simulcast lets dispatchers push one button and have all the tower sites transmit at the same time, while voting means emergency responders can "pick up the radio and talk" rather than manually trying to find the right tower. He said voting would be especially important for the police department. In other words, simulcast is used when dispatch talks to the responders, and voting is used when responders speak to dispatchers.
"Can you imagine being in a pursuit for instance and having to switch radio channels in the middle of that?" said Solomon illustrating the need for a system with voting.