BALTIMORE--To get away from the hustle and bustle of city life in Chicago, I often drive to a lakeshore hamlet on the border of Michigan and Indiana where my retired parents reside. It’s changed a lot since they first bought their property more than 25 years ago; traditional log cabins nestled among oak, maple and evergreen trees are torn down and replaced by McMansions. The beaches now are packed with summer tourists, and the number of homes has climbed from a few hundred to nearly 1000.

One of my childhood friends still lives there. He’s one of 30 volunteer firefighters who respond to everyday emergencies in the area, ranging from removing a colossal wasps’ nest at a local playground to helping a neighbor whose cat is stuck in one of the ancient oak trees. I often sit around his backyard fire pit enjoying freshly caught lake perch, and he’ll receive a page that alerts him to an emergency or a fire incident. In minutes, he puts his leisure time aside and dashes off with other volunteer firefighters to fight a fire, save a life or assist an elderly resident. He does it without complaint and without a second thought -- while the rest of us enjoy a meal and an ice-cold drink.

Last weekend, as we sat around the fire talking shop, we began to discuss Project 25, or P25, radios and the importance of interoperability. He agreed large municipalities need the ability to communicate with local, state and federal agencies in the event of a major disaster. But outfitting the local volunteer fire department with P25 radios was the last thing on his mind. He said they lacked the needed funds, and even if they had the money, it would go toward a new fire truck or bunker gear -- protective fire-retardant coveralls used by firefighters.

He said they have enough trouble raising money as is. They hold fish fries, pancake breakfasts and rummage sales to boost funds. In addition, he writes the grants and noted the difficulty of developing compelling copy in order to win enough money for new equipment, including radio-communication systems.

I thought of our conversation during the P25 Committee informational session at the Association of Public-Safety Communication Officials conference this week in Baltimore. As I listened to vendors on the committee discuss the benefits of the technology, I wondered, “How much money would a small fire department need to outfit its crew with P25 radios?”

So I asked the panel for a ballpark number. Would it cost $5000, $10,000 or a $100,000? No one had an answer. What I got instead was a spiel about the advancements in technology, its ability to withstand drops and how, over the long-term as more agencies’ adopt the technology, the price will decrease.

Of course, this is all true. And I give kudos to all the time volunteers have put forth to deliver a set of standards across manufacturers. But it’s a no-brainer that technology decreases in cost based on the speed of adoption. Look at computers. I remember in the 1980s working on an Apple IIe that cost a couple of grand. Now, I can score a desktop computer for less than $400. However, that price decrease took about two decades.

Now, I’m not naive. I know systems are customized to each area depending on the topography and the public-safety agency’s needs. I also know that the vendors working with the P25 Committee cut deals with state governments to help cushion the costs to rural communities that may not have the funds to upgrade systems. But for the myriad volunteer departments across the nation who do the job simply because they believe in serving their community, how much cash do they need to raise in order to upgrade their systems?

I asked a representative of a major two-radio vendor who requested anonymity. For bare-bones radios without the bells and whistles of over-the-air rekeying and encryption, buyers can expect to spend nearly $1000 per radio, he said. So if the volunteer department of 30 wanted to outfit each firefighter with a P25 radio they would have to raise $30,000.

As I think of those volunteers, who one day may have to respond to an incident at my parents or neighbor’s house, I wonder if P25 really makes sense for them. The radios may be high-tech, but they can’t put out fires. And for volunteer departments across the nation, monies acquired are still being put toward the essentials: trucks, gear and personnel.

Maybe in two decades, they’ll sell enough pancakes to upgrade to P25 systems. But I’m not holding my breath.

E-mail me at