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Small agencies can't fund mandate

PARK RAPIDS, Minn. - On an annual budget of $15,000 a year, the Hubbard (Minn.) First Responders are grappling with the price tag of converting their radio equipment to a digital system.

PARK RAPIDS, Minn. - On an annual budget of $15,000 a year, the Hubbard (Minn.) First Responders are grappling with the price tag of converting their radio equipment to a digital system.

The volunteers, who serve the small hamlet in Minnesota's Hubbard County in lakes country, would need $80,500 just to purchase new handheld radios and have five mobile units to replace as well.

So far, Carla Haynes' grant-writing efforts have brought in small amounts from local donors. But, she says U.S. Department of Homeland Security rejects the unit's applications, telling her the money can only go to fire-based units or emergency medical responders that transport patients.

The Chicago office receiving applications for Homeland Security funding "doesn't understand at all," Haynes said.

Most small, rural emergency response agencies, such as the Hubbard Responders, find themselves in the same predicament: how to comply with a Federal Communications Commission mandate that they transition all emergency radio equipment from analog to digital by 2013. The order came in response to the communication problems experienced by the agencies responding to the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

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Hoping to save some money and develop a useful regionwide emergency communication network, counties in northwestern Minnesota, including Hubbard, Becker and Clay, and the city of Moorhead, are building a joint powers board to oversee the collaborative.

A case study

While small, rural departments don't face the number of emergency calls a metro agency does, the fact is numbers for many small emergency units are on the rise, pointing to the need for funds for transitioning them to digital communication as well.

Val Kimball, a Hubbard First Responder who also keeps records for the unit, said they received 237 pages in 2006, and they are on pace to reach that number this year again.

"The calls keep going up and up," Haynes said.

The Hubbard unit received 15 calls the year it started.

Three women who lived in the tiny community thought medical emergencies needed a faster response, recalls Ken Manlove, who was among the initial group in 1993 and is still with the unit today.

It wasn't financially feasible to maintain an ambulance in Hubbard, but enough volunteers signed up to organize a first responder unit.

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The Hubbard First Responders has grown from three people to 25, answering calls from the Badoura area to Itasca State Park and from Mantrap Lake to eastern Becker County.

Because they use their own vehicles and respond from their homes or from work, these volunteers can often arrive at an accident scene or a residence faster than an ambulance.

At least twice a year, they save the life of someone who would have died if medical help hadn't arrived sooner, says Bucky Johnson, a first responder who also works for North Ambulance in Park Rapids.

Johnson said first responders often times can maintain or reverse situations, sidetracking long-term effects. For example, for some heart attack victims, the quick response time can save tens of thousands of dollars in rehabilitation costs.

Johnson explains some of their calls are to assist when a wife or husband has fallen and the spouse is unable to get them up.

"There's such a look of relief when we show up that if we did nothing else, it would be well worth it," he said.

The Forest Riders Snowmobile and ATV clubs helped the Hubbard First Responders acquire a rescue sled. The sled has interchangeable wheels and skis to allow the unit to respond to accidents involving snowmobilers, four-wheelers and hunters.

Several townships also donated money for the sled, a four-wheeler to pull it and a trailer.

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Altogether, the sled, ATV and trailer cost about $10,000.

With the sled adding to their capabilities, the First Responders are considering changing the unit's name to Hubbard First Response and Rescue. Haynes said even though she doesn't think the change would convince Homeland Security to award them grants for the radio conversion, the name change might make the unit eligible for other grants.

As for now, the unit is stuck. If the unit were fire-based or a medical transporter, they would qualify for Homeland Security grants.

Members of the unit say if they worked with a rig based at the fire hall, as first responders elsewhere do, it would slow their response time. And they can't serve as a medical unit because there is an ambulance service in Park Rapids.

Other nearby first responder units - such as in Nevis, Akeley, Lake George and Menahga - all have fire-based first responder units. That is the case in most places, so state and federal officials "automatically assume it's that way everywhere and it's not," Haynes added.

Like the Hubbard unit, other first responders who serve residents separately from local fire departments are Laporte, Carsonville and Wolf Lake.

Another financial dilemma for the Hubbard unit is that as a 501(c)3 organization, they can't receive more than $20,000 in a calendar year without jeopardizing their nonprofit status.

Currently, the majority of their funding comes from townships with a small amount from Hubbard County and the rest from fundraisers and donations.

The unit pays for refresher and continuing education classes for participants and new members. It costs about $3,000 to train and equip a new first responder. After that, however, the volunteers pay for gas and other expenses and there are no benefits, such as retirement as there are for firefighters.

"Serving isn't for everyone," said Haynes. "It's time-consuming and you're on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week."

Johnson serves on a statewide committee that includes the Park Rapids Region and welcomes the idea of better communications capabilities.

He and Carla's husband, Brent Haynes, testified at the Minnesota House of Representatives committee hearing earlier this fall, citing instances when they were on calls and there was no cell phone or radio coverage.

"Taxpayers have to realize this is a must, but once the foundation is started, we can build up from there," Johnson said. "The biggest problem is money. We've hit panic mode."

Final of three parts

- Online: Northwest Minnesota counties form collaborative to address emergency radio conversion to digital

- Sunday: Becker County is an early leader in the transition to digital

- Today: A case study of one first responder unit's struggle to go digital

The Park Rapids Enterprise and The Forum are both owned by Forum Communications Co. Small agencies can't fund mandate By Lu Ann Hurd-Lof 20071126

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