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January 07, 2008

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FEMA gives equipment grants to Ala. agencies

By RUSS HENDERSON
Mobile Register

MOBILE, Ala. —Federal officials announce $30,000 in equipment funds for public safety agencies

It's "gee whiz" stuff for sure: Night vision binoculars that can provide a steady view to officers aboard a boat riding rough waters. A portable computer equipped to model the path of toxic gases or liquids after a highway spill.

Federal emergency officials announced that Baldwin County public safety agencies have been awarded more than $30,000 in grants to buy cutting-edge equipment that the responders would otherwise be unable to afford.

"People don't wait till daytime to break down on the water," said Orange Beach Police Chief Billy Wilkins.

That's why his department applied for a $6,460 pair of gyro-stabilized binoculars with night vision capability from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's 2007 Commercial Equipment Direct Assistance Program, he said.

The Orange Beach request was among those granted when the Federal Emergency Management Agency last week announced $33.7 million to fund equipment and training for first responders across the nation.

The Baldwin County Sheriff's Office received a grant to purchase a pair of the same binoculars, according to a press release from the office of U.S. Rep. Jo Bonner, R-Mobile. And the Daphne Fire Department received $21,274 to purchase a portable computer for its hazardous materials response team.

"It's a great program. It allows departments like ours to get some of this gee-whiz stuff that the military gets to use," Wilkins said. "We'd have a hard time purchasing it ourselves."

Daphne Fire Department Battalion Chief Kenneth Hanak said the computer his department will receive through the program is easily worth $30,000. He described it as a "ruggedized computer" with three handheld personal digital assistant devices, PDAs, to be used by HazMat team members.

In the event of a tanker crash on Interstate 10 or a similar incident, the computer's operator will be able to quickly call up information about the toxic agents involved, then transmit the data to the HazMat team members' PDAs, he said.

The computer will be able to receive new information from the team members, as well as up-to-the-minute weather information, he said. The computer will use the information to generate maps of possible toxic gas plumes or liquid runoff from the accident site, Hanak said.

Daphne and Foley's HazMat teams would likely respond to such an I-10 spill, Hanak said. Orange Beach and Gulf Shores also have HazMat units but they would likely be too far away to effectively respond, he said.

Since the Commercial Equipment Direct Assistance Program's inception in 2005, FEMA has provided roughly 5,800 direct assistance awards worth more than $103 million for all hazards in smaller jurisdictions nationwide, according to the program's Web site.


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