Federal grant will modernize Modesto's firetruck computers

The federal government has awarded a $1 million grant to Modesto to replace the aging computers in city fire engines. But other fire departments in the county will benefit as well.

Modesto took the lead in applying for the grant to buy 170 mobile computers for the 17 fire departments and districts in Stanislaus County. Modesto needs 32 of the computers. The grant requires a 20 percent match from agencies that participate.

The Modesto City Council will decide Tuesday whether to take $39,000 from the general fund to cover its local match.

Interim Fire Chief Mike Kraus said letters will be sent to the other fire agencies asking if they are going to buy in.

"We took a regional approach with this, because many of the agencies we respond with don't have the mobile data capabilities," Kraus said.

The federal and state officials are stressing the importance of regional dispatch systems so that local responders can talk with each other during disasters.

Firefighters responding to emergencies use the onboard computers to communicate with Stanislaus County's 911 dispatch center.

After the initial dispatch over the radio, dispatchers send details of the incident to the computer screens in fire engines and command vehicles. Firefighters use the system to send information back to dispatchers, for example, that they are en route, have arrived at the scene or are back in quarters.

By reducing the amount of radio traffic, channels are kept open for relaying critical information to response teams.

Kraus said his department wants to replace its 7-year-old mobile computers, which are prone to equipment failure. Starting next year, other improvements will enable the dispatch system to display global positioning system maps on the screens and track the units as they respond.

If the council approves, the Modesto Fire Department expects to have the computers purchased and installed by mid-January.

The Salida Fire Protection District is still discussing how many computers to order, Fire Chief Dale Skiles said. Its four computers are 4 or 5 years old.

"We intend to participate," Skiles said. "It is a good opportunity to take advantage of grant funding, especially in these times."

Ceres plans to order as many as nine mobile computers, which could cost the city more than $8,000 in matching funds, officials said. Some of its mobile computers were installed four or five years ago and will need to be replaced before long.

"We actually had to repair four of them yesterday," Public Safety Director Art de Werk said. "Their shelf life is usually about seven years. With every passing year, the frequency of repairs increases."

The fire departments could have the option of permanent-mount or laptop units. Regardless of the computer hardware in emergency vehicles, the agencies use the same software in the communications equipment.

The Modesto City Council meets at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday in the basement chamber of Tenth Street Place, 1010 10th St.

Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at or 578-2321.