MACHIAS, Maine — Five Maine counties that share a border with Canada are filing a grant application for $4 million to increase and expand emergency communications between the state and its neighbor to the north.
The Washington County Emergency Management Agency is taking the lead on the project, Director Mike Hinerman said this week. He said $25 million is available through the Office of Homeland Security’s Border Interoperability Demonstration project.
“At least three awards will be made across the northern tier of the U.S.,” Hinerman said. “Three more will be made across the southern tier.”
Hinerman said emergency personnel along Maine’s border with Canada “have never shut the borders.” Local fire departments race across the Franklin Roosevelt Memorial Bridge between Lubec and Campobello, New Brunswick, or through Ferry Point between Calais and St. Stephen, New Brunswick.
“The local departments have put plans together for mutual aid and have the radio frequencies to talk to each other,” Hinerman said. “But if there is a bigger incident, there is no way for many emergency responders to speak to each other across the border on the same frequency.”
Hinerman said a “bigger incident” would be something like an oil spill, a large airplane crash, a damaging hurricane, a large woods fire or pandemic illness.
“We will be looking at both land and water issues,” he said. “Here, in Washington County, we share with Canada water issues, ship traffic, boating life safety, dams on the rivers and very busy border crossings in built-up areas.”
He said the hailing frequency that would be shared by emergency personnel would be similar to that used by the U.S. Coast Guard to reach boaters.
“We just learned of this grant opportunity 30 days ago. We had a meeting in Bangor with representatives from all five counties — Washington, Aroostook, Somerset, Franklin and Oxford — and we are working in cooperation with each other,” Hinerman said.
If the grant is awarded, Hinerman said, the plan includes installing radio towers in four of the counties with repeaters that are needed for optimum efficiency and coverage.
“We then would be connected with dispatch centers on both sides of the border,” he said.
Those towers also would solve the problem of radio “dead zones” that now plague local departments.
“There are some long dead zones in Washington County. This would solve this,” he said. “And it would not provide 100 percent coverage in Aroostook County” but will cover all inhabited areas.
Two towers would be placed in Washington County and an existing tower would be upgraded. Two more towers would be placed in Aroostook County and one in Franklin County. Hinerman said Somerset County already has an upgraded tower system.
Caches of portable radios also would be placed along the border, likely in Calais and Vanceboro near busy border crossings.
Local departments participating in the project also would receive training and development.
“When you are dealing with five counties and 611 miles of border, it is a great logistical challenge,” Hinerman said. “We are looking at first responders here. We need to be able to go … when needed.”
Maine has the third-longest border on the northern tier of states, he said.
“I feel we stand a good chance of being funded. It would be a huge step forward in emergency relationships between the U.S. and Canada,” Hinerman said. “But the biggest reason I feel optimistic is that, on the local level, the border doesn’t exist. Those communities — on both sides — do what they have to do. They deal with what is in front of them.”