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High-tech radios bought with grant money for 10 Southland fire departments are expected to help better coordinate personnel and perhaps save the lives of firefighters.
More than $710,000 awarded from a grant proposal written by former Orland Park Fire Protection District Chief Bryant Krizik helped secure the two Way Radios. Each of the departments was expected to chip in 20 percent of the cost, which represents a huge savings for smaller departments that have difficulty upgrading equipment because of the cost.
The state-of-the-art Motorola radios come with computer software that allows commanders on the scene of a fire to better keep tabs on firefighters especially in potentially life-threatening situations.
"The ultimate end goal is that we're safer and we're going to save firefighters' lives," Krizik said.
A huge challenge for many fire departments in smaller communities is replacing aging equipment.
"With recent budget restraints, we've had to use radios from all over the place," Midlothian Fire Chief Stephen Hotwagner said. Training on the departments' new radios was being conducted recently at the Pulaski Road station.
Before the grant, firefighters from Midlothian were resorting to making purchases from eBay to replace outdated radios.
Midlothian kicked in about $16,000 for the new models, which amounts to a fraction of what it would have paid without the grant.
The department has applied for one or two grants a year for the past five years, Hotwagner said. Over the last decade, it has been awarded three grants.
Midlothian is hoping to get $150,000 in grant money to buy an ambulance after recently bringing emergency medical service back in-house.
"These departments, if they didn't have any type of grant funding, there would be no way they get this type of radio," Krizik said.
Since leaving the Orland Fire Protection District, Krizik has helped smaller departments by writing grant proposals and also consults on emergency management for the Chicago Triathlon. In August 2011, Krizik agreed to retire as chief after a district investigation involving him and a deputy chief allegedly found pornographic images on his department-issued laptop. At that time, he denied using the computer to view sexually explicit websites but took responsibility.
The APX 7000 XE radios are the first of their kind for Motorola. The electronics company had never built a model specifically for fire departments.
There was a bit of a learning curve in the design process. Krizik said that during testing at the University of Illinois' Fire Safety Institute, Motorola engineers lost one of the radios because its black finish, similar to models used by law enforcement, blended in with the fire scene. The decision was made to switch to brighter colors, which is better for firefighters accustomed to working in dark and dirty conditions.
Designed for an extreme environment, the new, bright-green radios are outfitted with larger knobs for gloved firefighters and a waterproof case. It also features a large, orange button that, when pushed, signals a "mayday" call to all radios that cuts over any voice communications.
The radios and the accompanying software, which keeps track of the battery life and whether the radio was switched off in real time, also can be upgraded. New features, such as oxygen tank monitors or wireless headsets, can be added later.
"It's just the sort of good thing that's only going to get better," Hotwagner said.