Fire dept opts out of using JP radio

Jefferson Parish firefighters will no longer use the parish’s backup radio system after a recent funding spat with the Jefferson Parish Department of Emergency Management.

The issue was broached by Parish Councilman Chris Roberts at a recent council meeting after Roberts said an employee in emergency management office accused West Bank volunteer fire departments of holding the current budget process “hostage.” At issue was a push by emergency management to get all of the parish’s fire departments to pay a total of $250,000 to help with the cost of several capital projects associated with the parish’s backup radio system. Firefighters were pushing back against that plan, noting that the radio system is used primarily by the Jefferson Parish Public Works Department.

Although parish firefighters use the same 700 megahertz radio system as the Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s Office for their main system, they share an 800 megahertz system with public works and other departments as a backup system. Roberts questioned why the fire departments were being asked to pay so much money for a system many of them have never needed to use.

“Why are they carrying the load on the same level as someone who uses the system on a day-to-day basis,” Roberts asked.

Col. David Dysart, the parish’s director of emergency management, said the system desperately needs upgrades, including a new communications tower. In order to pay for those changes, the parish wants all users to contribute and created a payment rate based on the radios used by each entity.

Initially, the parish considering using the emergency communications fund to pay for the improvements since that fund generates about $7 million annually from charges to residential and wireless numbers.

However, that plan was shot down, and the parish moved to seeking funding from users, he said. Dysart said fire officials need to make a decision now.

“If this is something that’s got to be passed within this budget, then obviously it’s something that needs to be worked out,” Dysart told Roberts.

But Dysart’s plan was blasted as an unnecessary funding grab by Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand whose agency manages the emergency communications fund. Normand said the main parish system, which the Sheriff’s Office pushed for, has numerous backups and fail safes that make the parish’s backup system redundant. Normand accused Dysart of using “voodoo economics” to justify seeking money from firefighters to pay for what is basically a parish system.

“At the end of the day, what this is, is a funding scheme,” said Normand, who was backed up be several of the West Bank fire chiefs. “This has been articulated and beat around for months.”

Parish President John Young said that if firefighters don’t want to be part of the parish’s system, that’s their choice. Equipment costs under the sheriff’s system are more expensive, and one parish official said those charges could increase in upcoming years. Young said it’s the fire departments’ decision.

“We are going forward with a backup system, and if they want to opt out of ours, that’s fine,” Young said.