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Butte's new $1.6 million radio system aims to improve communications for emergency responders

Posted at 4:29 PM, Apr 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-04-22 11:37:41-04

BUTTE — Emergency responders in Butte found many things could interfere with their VHF high frequency radios.

“Wifi, electric lights, all of those things, cellular interference, all of those things coupled with the valley that will live in caused us to have some major communication problems, particularly with our hand-held radios,” said Butte Sheriff Ed Lester.

Police, fire and ambulance crews will now be equipped with a high-end 800 MHZ digital radio system they hope will prevent communication interrupts that can be caused by geography or even going into the basement of a building.

“The fire department, for example, is in the basement of a building, the on-scene commander starts seeing it’s becoming unsafe, he has to be able to communicate with the firefighters that are in that building,” said Lester.

Police say the new radios so far have proven effective.

“We had a tactical situation that was on the interstate and it was all the way near Phosphate on I-90. I was able to talk to our dispatch center from my walkie-talkie from the scene,” Lester said.

For those in Search and Rescue, good communications can mean life or death.

“If you can’t talk to your people in the field, you can’t form a plan, you don’t know where to follow up, you don’t know what needs to be checked,” said Brad Belke, the head of 15/90 Search and Rescue.

Rescuers are hopeful they’ll get an upgrade in communications because they’ve been out in mountainous areas where they’ve had to improvise just to get clear communications.

“Sometimes I find myself parked on a ridge at the top just so I can talk to people on this side of the ridge and people on this side of the ridge, because they can’t talk to each other with that ravine or ridge in between,” said Belke.

Each 800 MHZ radio cost about $7,000 each, with the entire system totaling approximately $1.6 million. The Butte Council of Commissioners approved the budget for the radios in August 2019.