Nearly 10,000 Wisconsinites marched on the state capitol in Madison to fend off Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to eliminate state workers’ collective-bargaining rights. Madison Asst. Fire Chief Paul Bloom was responsible for ensuring fire-department communications were supported during the protests, in addition to working with the city’s IT department to program and charge a cache of radios in order to help Capitol Police and other law-enforcement communicate.

Bloom joined Associate Editor Mary Rose Roberts to discuss the fire department’s communications structure. He also provided details about inviting Capitol Police and other law-enforcement agencies into the department’s communications command center, set up 10 years ago in an administrative building to address the civil events held in Madison and at nearby University of Wisconsin (UW).

What is the MFD’s radio system?

We have an 800 MHz trunking system. Our equipment is fairly current in our vehicles. I just spent the last three years upgrading portable radios to a newer model from Motorola, and that particular radio is set up so we can switch them to digital.

The fire department activated its command post during the union protests. How did you prepare for agencies to come and work?

It’s not so much an EOC. We set this up in our administration building. We have unique events in this city especially for fire, so we wanted a command post that would work for fire. Well, we found out many of the events are primarily a police event. We are part of them always, because again we get called for the bigger emergencies — fire and EMS. So we decided the command post would be designed for police and fire. And so, having said that, depending on what the event is — police, city police, state police sheriffs, UW police and any other entity may be invited to come into the post and be given radios.

Radio-wise, it gets complicated because some of the people out there are on VHF. So at the command post, we have VHF and 800 MHZ, among other, frequencies set up. The nice thing is that we are all in one room, so we can communicate directly and then get that message out to the field.

From a technical perspective, what communication equipment is used to connect disparate agencies?

We have special-duty radios that are programmed and ready to be handed out. Every one of our firefighters has a portable radio already, and every one of our vehicles has a mobile radio in it.

For this event, we had so many outside agencies coming in. … hundreds of police officers scheduled throughout the day. The Capitol Police asked for additional radios and help managing communications, in order to set up everyone on the same communications on. As I had been replacing our Motorola radios and upgrading to the new series, I kept the old ones — so I had 60 radios still not sold. Now, they needed to be programmed to police channels, so time and money became an issue. But the city of Madison has its own radio shop, so I worked with them the day after this started. I found 60 charges and 60 radios — which cost us $10,000 to $12,000. The Capitol Police agreed they would reimburse us out of their budget.

We programmed the radios and everyone was on the same communications, from the police standpoint. I thank the radio shop for their hard work.

Were there communication issues in the field?

It was hard for people to hear things. Again, I was approached and the Capitol Police and others asked for earpieces and microphones. I had a few — about 20 — but those went to firefighters. I didn’t have enough to give the state 60 of them. The nice thing is that I called Motorola and asked for 60—because it’s so easy to miss a communication if you have that radio tucked in a pocket or a microphone hanging over your lapel. So we passed those out. That was about $2,500 for those.

Again, we have recaptured at least 80% of that funding from the Capitol Police.

What were the lessons learned?

As a fire chief, we have always preplanned and looked at national events. We’ve always said we need to spend that extra money to prepare. So don’t be hesitant to bring up developing a command post because it is so difficult to set up something in the middle of an event.