Town seeks STEAP grant – Push underway to replace emergency communications system

With the town facing the replacement of its aging emergency communications system, a state grant program could be key to seeing the project move forward.

First Selectman Peter Tesei said last week that the town is seeking assistance from the state through the Small Town Economic Assistance Program (STEAP), which provides state money to projects just like this in municipalities with populations under 65,000. An application has already been sent in to seek funding for a fire safety and emergency training trailer for the Greenwich Fire Department to educate residents on fire protection, but this is another use for the annual state grant program.

The decision on what grant money, if any, is given to Greenwich is likely to come in October and will be made by Gov. Dannel Malloy. The communications tower has hardware and software that are being phased out for more advanced technology so it is a matter of when it will have to be replaced, not if. And should the grant money go forward, two key advocates for the project say it could result in federal money that would further reduce the price tag for the town.

 

At the Aug. 23 Board of Selectmen meeting, Mr. Tesei said that the replacement of the 800 megahertz system with a more modern system is a “large project that’s coming down the pike.” All of the town’s emergency branches use this tower for communication as does the town’s Department of Public Works, making it a priority for the town. Because of that Mr. Tesei said the second application has been made, requesting $245,000 for infrastructure as part of the replacement, which is expected to have a price tag in the neighborhood of $16 million. Mr. Tesei said this infrastructure would be a “core piece” of the project.

“This is something that’s worth people’s time,” Mr. Tesei said. “The grants are only $500,000 and no municipality can receive more than that. It’s totally at the discretion of the governor and we have been fortunate to have obtained several hundreds of thousands of dollars through both Gov. Rell and now Gov. Malloy… We’ve been very lucky and fortunate and we have to acknowledge that state dollars are tight. We’re hopeful we’ll get something, but don’t be surprised if we get nothing. It’s important to manage expectations here. We’ve been fortunate in the past, but the pool of money is not very large.”

The request for the STEAP money for the fire trailer is $125,000 so the town could conceivably receive the requested money for the tower and the trailer without going over the $500,000 cap and without this turning into an “either/or” kind of situation.

Town studies cost

Currently the town is in the middle of an “IT study” that will determine the possible replacement solutions as well as a final price. The study, which was approved as part of the 2012-13 municipal budget, cost $155,000 and currently there is a placeholder in the 10-year-capital plan that pegs the project’s cost at around $16 million, though that number was projected years ago and will be adjusted once the study results are in. The study is actually expected to be at least slightly lower than the projected $16 million and Board of Estimate and Taxation (BET) Chairman Michael Mason told the Post this week that he expects this information to be part of the discussions for the 2013-14 municipal budget next year.

Mr. Mason said that once the study is complete they can have a more specific cost in mind. Calling it a “fairly large capital project,” Mr. Mason sad it would have to become a priority and that it can be accomplished over several budgets without the town having to absorb the costs all at once.

Mr. Tesei credited the idea of pursuing state funds for this project to town resident Joe Kaliko, whom he called “a kind of unofficial ombudsmen with the state and the governor’s office.” Mr. Kaliko, who headed Mr. Malloy’s transition team after his 2010 election, has been seen as instrumental in getting state funding for projects like The Nathaniel Witherell’s Project Renew as well as pushing forward legislation to provide indemnification protection for volunteer firefighters and members of fire police patrols.

Involving the governor

A member of the Cos Cob Fire Police patrol and a member of and special adviser to the Region 1 Emergency Planning Team, Mr. Kaliko told the Post in an interview this week that getting state money through STEAP could open the doors to even bigger things. Improving the communications system has long been a goal of Greenwich’s Emergency Management Director Dan Warzoha, that he says will not only benefit Greenwich but the entire region. Mr. Warzoha, a former fire chief in town, is chairman of the Region 1 Emergency Planning Team, an area that covers Greenwich and surrounding cities like Stamford and Bridgeport.

Under the new system, first responders would be able to reach each other on a variety of frequencies, ensuring constant communication in a time of emergency.

“This project is the first of its kind in the state,” Mr. Warzoha said. “It’s the first of its kind in New England. It’s going to build a platform for 700-megahertz communication. We have an 800 system in Greenwich, but in a digitized system 700 and 800 will both be heard. It knows no boundaries and it’s the base platform for interoperable communications. I could sit right here and talk to the police chief in Bridgeport when he’s sitting in his office. The objective is to tie all the communities together, and all the 14 municipalities in southwestern Connecticut will be able to communicate with the state and with the federal government.”

“This is something that’s so important in this region,” Mr. Kaliko added. “You’ve even heard [Sen. Richard] Blumenthal talk about it. We’ve got the banks here in this region. We’ve got NASDAQ. We’ve got the ports. We’ve got the rail system. If there is a natural disaster or a terrorist attack or something like a cyber attack, the ability to communicate is a key of survival. This will allow our first responders to be able to patch into the national communication if there is a terrorist attack.”

Benefit to first responders

Mr. Warzoha said the power of the system was recently demonstrated at a National Level Communications Exercise he participated in where a nationwide cyber attack that crashed all other forms of communication was simulated and the system was still able to connect the region to the New York City police, fire and transit departments as well as FEMA, the state of Connecticut and the United States Marshals Service.

Both men stressed the importance of communication in an emergency situation, a lesson that was hammered home during the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in New York City.

“We have an obligation, not just to our citizens, but to our first responders,” Mr. Warzoha said. “You heard all the horror stories from 9/11 when people didn’t know what was happening and didn’t evacuate the towers. We’re making sure our first responders have a far more secure, robust and resilient communications platform.”

The $245,000 the town is asking for through STEAP would be targeted toward equipment and infrastructure. Mr. Warzoha said it would be used for microwave dishes that he said are part of the “backbone” of the system. There are four of them in town and three of them need to be replaced. One was upgraded in 2009 and because the other three haven’t, Mr. Warzoha said it was a major reason why there were communications problems in the March 2010 nor’easter in town. He said the winds were so strong during that storm that it made the older dishes wobble, disrupting the continuous signals and impacting the radio signal. Upgrading would allow for communications to continue even if that happened again.

“This will strengthen our backbone and make it far more resilient than it is currently,” Mr. Warzoha said.

Federal money

Initially Mr. Warzoha had tried for money from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), since Region 1 had demonstrated best practices to federal auditors in terms of emergency response and it is in such a critical area because of the proximity to New York City as well as the location of NASDAQ and several major international banks in Greenwich and Stamford. However, the grant power from FEMA was transferred to the federal Department of Homeland Security and Mr. Warzoha said that the decision was made on that level to focus more on major cities and less on the New England region.

Mr. Kaliko said he had personally written to Mr. Malloy on this issue and reminded him of the challenges he had faced as mayor improving Stamford’s emergency communications system, which cost more than $18 million. Mr. Kaliko said in the letter that making these improvements are “vital to enhance the security of the 14 municipalities in Region 1, the state of Connecticut and our nation.” Both Mr. Kaliko and Mr. Warzoha also met last month with the governor to pitch how important funding from the state could be.

State Rep. Fred Camillo (R-151) said he was also working on behalf of the project, saying it was, “a critical need being addressed as well as budgetary relief combines to make this a win-win for the town. In fact, it is a triple winner as it benefits the Greenwich, the region, and the state of Connecticut. Under the leadership of Rep. Livvy Floren and the rest of the Greenwich legislative delegation, we were able to work with the state, assisted by our friend and “ambassador,” Joe Kaliko, who is a tireless advocate for our town.”

A task force has been put together with both Mr. Warzoha and Mr. Kaliko on it with other state officials to work on putting together strategies that will later be brought back to Mr. Malloy for review. The task force met for the first time on Aug. 29 and funding for the STEAP grants is expected to be released this fall. Mr. Kaliko said he has had the full support of the town’s delegation to the legislature on this and credited Greenwich Police Capt. Mark Kordick for drafting the STEAP application and doing such a thorough job on short notice.

Mr. Warzoha said that when municipalities like Greenwich work with the state on solutions it can demonstrate to the federal government how important a project is and can cause funding to come as a result.

“The STEAP application is one piece of the puzzle that will relieve a little burden from Greenwich and perhaps make it easier for us to go back to Homeland Security and FEMA to get that spigot of money back on,” Mr. Kaliko said. “It’s more than just a couple hundred grand to Greenwich. It’s a very important step.”

 

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