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New board will make sure emergency responders are on the same frequency

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Public officials took a major step toward improving communications among emergency responders in northwestern Minnesota Wednesday.

Fifteen counties (including Becker County) the city of Moorhead and tribal governments have formed the Northwest Regional Radio Board and the board convened its first meeting in Thief River Falls.

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Tim Leslie, assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and chair of the Statewide Radio Board, said citizens are going to be the ones who benefit from the board's efforts.

Initially, Leslie said, he and others charged with developing a statewide system talked about the best way to make it happen and decided it would be to distribute governance since those closest to their regions know what will work.

"The Interstate 35W bridge collapse was one of the biggest tests we've ever faced and the system worked," Leslie said. Law enforcement, First Responders and other agencies talked to each other, achieving interoperability, Leslie said.

Now the goal is to connect public safety communication systems throughout northwestern Minnesota. The change will require going to ultra high frequency and/or 700-800 megahertz radio bands.

Cal Johannsen, a retired sheriff's deputy, will represent Hubbard County on this new board but was unable to attend Wednesday. (It was the county board's meeting day.)

State Sen. LeRoy Stumpf (DFL-Plummer), Rep. Dave Olin (DFL-Thief River Falls), law enforcement, firefighters, ambulance personnel and others attended the convening meeting.

Tom Hannon, a DPS consultant assisting in the process, said the northwestern participants accomplished in a few months what it took two years to do in central Minnesota.

Several committees, including a policy committee chaired by Hubbard County Chief Deputy Frank Homer, laid the groundwork and will continue to assist the board. Through a new joint powers agreement, the board has a number of duties such as establishing standards, applying for and administering grants and setting a budget.

One action item later in the day was to review a policy on how counties would be assessed. The new board approved the same formula the central Minnesota board adopted: a flat fee, plus an amount based on population and the number of radios in use.

Expenses will include administration, operations and capital equipment. According to the joint powers agreement, if a member withdraws it has to pay off the expenses and give a year's notice.

Hannon said the board will be asked to set up a user committee. The one in Central Minnesota has 105 members and includes fire, EMS, sheriff, public works, education and other representatives. Hanson said the user committee's purpose will be "to develop policies from the ground up," and assist with long-range planning.

Scott Wiggins, director of DPS's new division for emergency communications, said the timetable for achieving interoperability has been moved up with northwestern Minnesota and two other regions next in line. It is a $200 million project, Wiggins said.

With a goal of 95 percent mobile coverage, the Statewide Radio Board is working in partnership with the Minnesota Department of Transportation to add new towers and will be putting up 20 towers in the northwestern part of the state in the next three to four years.

The towers are part of the infrastructure needed to achieve interoperability in the state and with neighboring states and Canada.

Tom Johnson, also of DPS, said the statewide board has budgeted to integrate state agencies, including the Department of Natural Resources, into the system and do a county-by-county analysis of VHF systems. VHF radio systems are the predominant system throughout rural Minnesota.

The state board also has budgeted for equipment and training and allocated $5.3 million to purchase portable and mobile radios.

Johnson asked for counties to help in land acquisition for the new communications towers. In Big Stone County, MnDOT is leasing county land and in return the county is able to place equipment on the state's tower. That is the ideal situation, he said.

Before the board adjourned, Bill Montaque, Polk County commissioner, was elected chair and Skip Swanson, Pennington County, will serve as vice chair.

At a less formal meeting after lunch, Leslie told the board, committee chairs and other leaders, "This is about building relationships. You are forced to contemplate how you will work together when disasters happen. They don't recognize geographic boundaries."

Greater Northwest EMS will provide administrative services to the NRRB.

The NRRB has a Web site: nwmnradio.org.

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