You have to feel for Mineral County Search and Rescue.
The organization runs almost entirely on volunteer efforts and donations, based on the goodwill of community groups. Although the Sheriff’s Office oversees the group, the sheriff’s budget does not provide any money for the organization.
The volunteers were hopeful when Congress passed the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act of 2000. The Act named Search and Rescue organizations as one of the groups eligible for funding through the bill, and Mineral County would get a total of about $750,000 each year. But the Mineral County commissioners have not given Search and Rescue anywhere near what they had hoped over the last six years. The Act expires this year, and though the Bush administration hopes to renew it for five more years, they also plan to phase out its funding.
Some of the biggest fundraising events for Search and Rescue—snowmobile races and rides in the West End —have been canceled over the past few years because there hasn’t been enough snow.
Even with a flood of Homeland Security money available for first responders over the last few years, nobody from the county or from any partner agencies sought funding for Search and Rescue.
So the volunteers put together their own grant proposal. And now, after winning $435,974—the largest such grant in the state of Montana last year—two local fire departments have stepped forward to point out that Search and Rescue can’t get any of that grant money.
In a contentious meeting in Superior Monday night, grant writer Martha “Marty” Birkeneder left the room in tears, and Larry Price of the Superior Fire Department and Bruce Charles of the West End Fire Department faced off in a tense confrontation.
Larry demanded that Bruce promise that he would stop making phone calls to FEMA about the grant. Bruce agreed to remain silent for the rest of the meeting, but would not promise to stop asking questions.
The events that led to the contentious meeting Monday night started two years ago, when the sheriff’s office moved to digital radios. When they use the new encryption feature--to keep their conversation private and to ensure that folks with scanners can’t listen in--those with the old analog radios hear only the annoying squelch.
Sometimes the dispatcher forgets to switch the equipment from encrypted digital to analog, and the folks with the old analog radios don’t even hear the initial page.
The plan was to obtain the same digital equipment as the sheriff’s office, so all of the county’s emergency responders could communicate with one another, whether encrypted or not.
The volunteers started putting together their own grant proposal to buy new radios for the first responders—the four local fire departments (the West End, St. Regis, Superior, and Alberton), their associated ambulance and QRU units, and Search and Rescue. (The Alberton stations are part of the Frenchtown Fire District.)
Dennis Hildebrand, the Superior fire chief, Jerry Dockter, the St. Regis fire chief, and Mike Byrnes, a long-time Search and Rescue volunteer, started putting together the FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant proposal about two years ago. Do you want new state-of-the-art digital radios? What do you need? they asked the other county fire departments.
The West End at that time was under the direction of a different chief, and he didn’t respond. So Dennis and Mike estimated the number of radios the West End would need and included them in the grant.
Frenchtown Fire said they didn’t want to be a part of the effort, according to Dennis. Under Chief Scott Waldron, Frenchtown has been very successful in obtaining grants on its own, and may have already been seeking the digital radios through a Missoula County grant. Participating in two grant proposals might jeopardize both of them.
It’s also possible there was a misunderstanding, or that Frenchtown may have underestimated the Mineral County group’s chances and decided not to invest any time in the effort. It’s hard to pin down exactly who said what to whom, two years after the fact. At any rate, Frenchtown was not named in the grant proposal as one of the potential recipients. The name on the grant read: “Superior Volunteer Fire Department.”
Dennis and Mike then hooked up with a Kalispell company, Mobile Fone, that has put together a creative way of selling its digital radio equipment. The company works with small rural counties like Mineral County who are eligible for the equipment but do not have their own grant writer.
The company provides a grant writer to craft the county’s proposal, with the agreement that if the county wins the grant, Mobile Fone will then get an opportunity to participate in the competitive bidding process for the contract to supply the radios.
If Mobile Fone wins the contract, the grant writing services are free. If Mobile Fone doesn’t win the contract, the county agrees to reimburse them for the cost of the grant writing services.
It’s a good deal for the small rural counties, who face no risk. If the county doesn’t win the grant, Mobile Fone covers the cost of the grant writer. If they win, that cost is already built into the contract.
The grant writer, Marty Birkeneder, is an interesting person. She used to be a judge and was once threatened by the Montana Freemen. The Lifetime Channel even made a movie about her life titled, “Nightmare in Big Sky Country.”
She has been successful in writing and administering grants over the last 10 years. As a Hamilton resident, she has worked closely with Kit Sutherland, director of the Bitterroot Resource Conservation and Development group and has been impressed with his work. She asked Kit and the Bitterroot RC&D to act as the fiscal agent for the contract, and he agreed.
After winning the grant Dec. 23, Mike and Dennis asked Marty to manage the grant, working with FEMA to ensure that they were abiding by the legal requirements of the grant, with Kit’s group as fiscal agent providing its own additional oversight.
The meeting Feb. 13 was to touch base and review changing technical specifications for the radios, and to see what models might be best for the departments. Dennis said he invited everyone, including Frenchtown Fire, just to be up-front and open throughout the entire process. Frenchtown’s chief of operations, Steve Roy, has also worked extensively with the new digital radio equipment and has served as a technical advisor to the group.
Marty, Steve Roy, and Bruce Charles arrived in the room before the others. When a Chronicle reporter arrived five minutes before the meeting, Marty was already upset.
Bruce was asking some pointed questions about the contract.
Bruce, who took over as West End Fire Chief after the grant was already set in motion, said his department has a bigger communication need than radios—he needs additional repeaters to cover “dead zones” where the radios don’t work in Mineral County.
Right now there are just three repeater sites—at Alberton, Superior, and Lookout Pass—and there are many dead spots up the canyon in the West End. Bruce said there should be another repeater near DeBorgia to provide better coverage in the West End, as well as another repeater on Pat’s Knob, to cover the dead spots on the cutoff road north of St. Regis.
Frenchtown Fire has also pointed out that the existing three repeaters already carry all radio traffic for both the law enforcement and medical agencies. The emergency medical services ought to have their own communications backbone, with their own repeaters. They suggested installing five new repeaters—three next to the law enforcement repeaters at Alberton, Superior, and Lookout Pass, as well as the Pat’s Knob and DeBorgia repeaters that Bruce requested.
Further, Mineral County should put together an overall communication plan, Frenchtown said. Adding 90 new portable radios and 30 new mobile vehicle radios to an already jammed frequency is “like trying to add another 10,000 vehicles to Reserve Street,” Steve said.
The West End and Frenchtown said that the $435,000 is more than enough to buy digital radios, and that the grant administrators ought to try to amend the contract so that some of that money could be used for the additional repeaters.
There is more flexibility and more opportunity for negotiation before you buy the radios, Bruce suggested.
Somehow, these reasoned arguments were lost in the interpersonal dynamics Monday night, and instead of a discussion on the merits, it quickly became personal.
After several pointed questions about the legality of an Assistance to Firefighters Grant that would benefit Search and Rescue, Marty said, “It’s like I’m being attacked.”
“You bet your ass you are,” Bruce said.
As the Chronicle reporter and Dennis entered the room, Marty was saying, “Well, I guess it’s totally up to you. If you want someone else to oversee this grant, I’ll step down.”
Dennis intervened, pointing out that the meeting hadn’t even started yet, and that it was a matter for the entire group to discuss.
The meeting got underway and Bruce again raised his objections before the group.
He had called FEMA and spoken with the administrator overseeing the grant, asking questions about it.
He also attended a grant writing seminar last week, and the instructor turned out to be the person who audits every single Montana project. Without specifying the Mineral County grant by name, he asked the auditor whether Search and Rescue could benefit from the fire grant. The answer was a clear and resounding no.
The group responded that Search and Rescue was explicitly mentioned in the grant, and that the FEMA administrator told them that the Search and Rescue volunteers who are also first responders could get the radios.
How many times would they have to keep answering the same questions, they said, just because Bruce Charles didn’t like the answer?
Marty couldn’t take it any more. “I don’t want to come into a meeting that I’ve worked this hard on and be insulted by somebody in this group who continually is going behind my back,” she said, and left the room.
Larry Price was shaking with anger. In his view, the West End and Frenchtown had done nothing to help with the grant, but now with their phone calls to FEMA they were threatening to ruin it for everybody. He confronted Bruce.
“You really don’t have a thing to say and for you to come in this meeting—not only are you rude, but you’re totally out of line. In fact, you can leave right now.”
Mike Byrnes was fed up. He said he didn’t plan to do so until later in the meeting, after a longer discussion, but he moved for an immediate vote. “We’re going to have a vote of confidence for Marty,” he said, and it was seconded by Alan Brockway. Every hand in the room went up, except for Bruce Charles’s hand.
Marty returned to the room and the group moved on to discuss features that they would want in the radios: pageable with selective paging, trunking capabilities, encryption capabilities, programmability, and maybe even ruggedized radios.
Larry Price came back to Bruce. “I want you to promise that you won’t go behind our back and talk to FEMA again. I want you to promise,” Larry said, and when he didn’t get an immediate response, repeated, louder, “I want you to promise.”
Bruce agreed not to raise any more objections during the meeting, but was silent about refraining from other efforts.
After the meeting, it appeared that the storm had passed. The group will now move ahead with the formal Request for Proposal seeking bids on their radios. But the frustration remained.
Larry Price was still upset with Bruce Charles. “I really think people in the West End should strongly reconsider their choice as chief. If he’s not going to work with and support the other fire agencies and other emergency agencies in the county, he doesn’t belong in his position. You are either part of the family or you’re not. We can have our little squabbles, but to cause serious problems for another one of the companies, you’re not benefiting the people,” Larry said.
If everything is being done according to the rules, there should be no harm in asking a few questions, Bruce Charles said. “Yet I’m the bad guy,” he told the Chronicle Tuesday.
He explained that he was just trying to avoid a repeat of a bad experience in the West End. A grant to install a new fire hall ended in a lawsuit. “I thought, ‘Here we go again, with this magnificent opportunity for Mineral County, and just not doing our homework,’ ” he said.
Including Search and Rescue in the Assistance to Firefighters Grant was clearly prohibited by the regulations, Bruce said. Dennis Hildebrand’s name was on the grant. If an auditor agreed that Search and Rescue couldn’t get the radios, Dennis would be personally liable, Bruce pointed out, just as the former chief was named in the West End lawsuit.
Marty Birkeneder pointed out that another grant is coming up and Frenchtown and the West End are free to seek repeaters for Mineral County.
“Frenchtown can’t just come in and say, ‘Back up the truck, where’s your long term strategy?’ We have to buy what we set out as critical needs after interviewing all these agencies for weeks and weeks on end.”
With the radio prices lower than expected, she has already asked FEMA about buying repeaters with any extra money. FEMA warned that if the group does so, it will lose all funding . They must stay within the scope of the grant. End of discussion.
“I’m not accustomed to dealing with people who distrust me,” she said, referring to Bruce Charles. “I invited his constructive criticism. I told him, I need your positive support, not your bullets in the hull of the boat. But he just came back with another barrage.”
The final answer from the FEMA help desk is that members of Search and Rescue who are affiliated with EMS or fire departments—those that cross over—are the only ones who can receive equipment, she said.
“I’m going to do my damnedest to get along with this guy,” she said, noting that she offered to work with him on another upcoming grant deadline. “I’m not going to quit trying. But he’s sure not a team player.”
Steve Roy said the problems could have been avoided by a plan that set priorities. “With all this grant money, everyone started coming in with all their different wants and needs, saying, ‘We want this, we need this.’ They needed to find out what’s most important. If they had a communications plan with priorities, it would have eliminated a lot of this.”
Dennis Hildebrand, whose name is on the grant, took it all in stride. “When we started this grant two years ago, we asked for radios, not all this other stuff. If we start going swap-o trade-o with horses in the middle of the stream, that puts the grant in jeopardy. We need to follow through and accomplish the grant.”
With prices coming down, the group may not have to spend as much money as they anticipated two years ago. And though there might have been an opportunity to spend the leftover money for other purposes, after all the phone calls to FEMA, that moment has passed.
“Since all this has hit the fan, questions have been raised with FEMA to the point that the people who approved the grant have said, ‘Don’t deviate from the grant. If there are any monies left over, they can be returned back to the granting source.’ So that’s exactly what we are going to do.”
The group expects to start seeking bids in the next few weeks.