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Fire Stations Reach to Satellite for Training Films


An unexpected accouterment graces three county fire stations in Bell Gardens, Commerce and Rancho Palos Verdes. Each station has a 10-foot-diameter satellite dish.

Lest skeptics fret that the Los Angeles County Fire Department has succumbed to luxury, department officials promise that the new high-tech receptors--more commonly associated with remote sports broadcasts and shadowy foreign films--are intended to serve as a training device for firefighters.

The dishes allow the fire stations to view a variety of training programs for firefighters produced by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The programs, which cover such topics as cleaning up toxic chemical spills, treating trauma victims and fighting brush fires, are beamed by the agency's Emergency Education Network in Emmitsburg, Md., to a satellite.

Fire departments around the country can retrieve the information if they have a dish antenna, said Sue Downin, executive producer of the programs.

Over any 10-month period, the agency typically produces 15 programs of about 4 1/2 hours each. Earlier this year, the satellite beamed a veritable blockbuster in firefighting circles--five consecutive days of nine-hour broadcasts on how to clean up hazardous materials, Downin said.

An estimated 100,000 viewers watch the live broadcasts and as many as 150,000 more see them later on videotape.

The county paid about $3,000 each for the installations at the Bell Gardens, Commerce and Rancho Palos Verdes stations.

Los Angeles County fire officials said it will prove cheaper in the long run to buy satellite dishes to receive the programming, rather than paying to send employees to the training sessions in Maryland or to order the videotapes of them. At $75 to $100 each, purchasing the videotapes would eventually cost more than a dish antenna, the officials said.

In the future, dishes are to be purchased for a few more of the county's new fire stations as they are built, said Randy Gomez, construction coordinator for the department. Those stations will be expected to invite firefighters at neighboring stations over to view the training programs, or to make videotapes for their use, Gomez said.

Firefighters concede that the satellite dishes may also help them find recreational programming.

"I haven't seen anything foreign on there yet," said Capt. Ray McDermott of the Rancho Palos Verdes station. "We are just getting into a new station and getting the bugs worked out, so people aren't really locked in on the satellite yet."

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