CANTON  The idea for a common radio system that allows safety forces from all over Stark County to talk to each other during an emergency is certainly not a new one.

"How long have we been talking about this?" Sheriff George Maier asked Massillon Fire Chief Tom Burgasser.

"Forty years," Burgasser replied.

That's about to change thanks to a local cooperative effort and an $806,093 grant from the State Fire Marshal, a division of the Ohio Department of Commerce.

The award, split up among 18 small fire departments and districts in the county was announced last month. But many of those involved in securing the grant, as well as recipients, gathered Tuesday morning for a ceremony at the sheriff's office.

"I never thought I'd see this day," said Stark County Commissioner Richard Regula, who recalled the times when Navarre and Bethlehem Township each had shiny new fire trucks that weren't shared, despite being located "a driver and wedge" apart.

Fire Marshal Jeff A. Hussey said the award is the largest given to a single community. It was part of $3 million handed out this year to 186 departments in 54 counties. Many communities didn't secure any funding because annual requests from across the state usually total between $12 million and $14 million.

Money was available to agencies that serve areas with populations of fewer than 25,000 people. Of the 20 local agencies eligible, 18 applied for and received funding. It will be used to pay for radios, which cost between $3,000 and $4,000 apiece. The only two that didn't apply already have radios that can be connected to the state's Multi-Agency Radio Communications Systems, aka MARCS.

North Canton Fire Chief John Bacon, president of the Stark County Fire Chiefs' Association, praised all the chiefs who came together on the project. He said his department has an upcoming drill with other agencies in Stark and Summit counties at the Akron-Canton Airport. The joke has been that Stark agencies can communicate with Summit agencies via Morse Code since the radios were incompatible.

"This is our step toward solving that problem," Bacon said.

Hussey said the MARCS system allows multiple fire, law enforcement and state agencies to communicate at emergency scenes, which can help save lives. Stark County commissioners Bill Smith and Janet Weir Creighton said working with the fire departments, through the sheriff, was the right thing to do.

"To protect our citizens; that is what it's all about," Creighton said.

Last year, commissioners signed a $12 million contract to buy new radio equipment and technical support from Motorola Solutions for the sheriff's office and three dispatch centers.

The new MARCS system replaces one from the 1990s, which Motorola officials said they may not be able to maintain after this year.

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