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County moves ahead with Armer system

Becker County is on the road to adopting a new radio system that will provide statewide communications.

The County Board on Tuesday approved a $58,000 contract with Rey Freeman Communications Consulting of Minnetonka to oversee the move to the Armer radio system for law enforcement and emergency workers.

The system will cost as much as $2.1 million, which includes radios for all 28 public safety, public works and school districts in Becker County.

County officials hope to offset a large portion of that cost through grant funding.

The Armer system will replace the VHF radios currently in use across Becker County.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation runs the Armer radio system, which is in use statewide by highway workers, state troopers and other state employees. The state has installed towers across Minnesota as part of the system.

Hubbard, Otter Tail and most other counties in the state have already switched to the Armer system.

Only the 14 counties in northwestern Minnesota’s region 6 have yet to do so, and a number of them are now in the process of making the switch.

“A lot of counties in northwest Minnesota are coming on board,” Sheriff Kelly Shannon told the county board.

 The sheriff’s department currently uses analog VHF radios that operate on 150-160 MHz frequencies.

The sheriff’s department ordered the digital version, but never took ownership, so was able to cancel the order without payment, Sheriff’s Sgt. Shane Richard said in an earlier story. He sits on the regional technical advisory committee.

The county committed to the VHF system seven or eight years ago, when the Armer system was still clustered around the Twin Cities, St. Cloud and Rochester, Richard said.

The contract with Rey Freeman will be paid in four stages, as work is completed. Freeman’s consulting firm was recently spun off from GeoComm, where he worked for 17 years. The change will save the county about $12,000, commissioners said.

Final system design is expected to be finished by Dec. 9. The next phase, systems procurement, will be done Jan. 27. The third phase, delivery, implementation and testing, is set to be finished June 27, though that may change depending on the needs of the project vendor.

The county plan for switching to Armer calls for the purchase of 40 mobile, 90 portable and 2 base radio units for law enforcement, 80 mobile, 262 portable and 15 base units for fire/EMS, 10 portable units for public works, and 5 mobile, 36 portable and 3 base units for schools and other agencies.

Those numbers are based on the existing system.

MnDOT owns and operates the Armer system, and has already installed 327 tower sites across Minnesota, including a half dozen in Becker County and another six close to Becker County that will provide strong coverage throughout the county.

There are statewide resources that come with the Armer system, including a portable tower (towed on wheels) in each region, and a cache of 30 portable radios in each region that can be distributed to emergency workers from out of the area that come in to help during a crisis.

The whole radio issue was driven by a Federal Communications Commission deadline of Jan. 1 of this year for all emergency radio systems to be narrow-banded.

“We used to broadcast on 25 kilohertz,” Richard said. “The FCC made everybody go to 12-and-a-half kilohertz and they said at some point that will be cut in half again.”

That kind of narrow bandwidth would render current VHF radios unusable, he added.