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Emergency communications to improve across Otter Tail County

Updating county board members about the new county-wide 800 MHz communication system May 1 were, left to right, Sheriff Brian Schlueter, Administrative Lt. Matt McGuire, Dispatch Supervisor Judy Siggerud and County Emergency Manager Patrick Waletzko. Tom Hintgen/FOCUS

Otter Tail County is one of many across Minnesota facing a narrow-banding compliance date of Jan. 1, 2013. The goal is to improve communications all across the county.

Phase one included communications upgrades among law enforcement. Subsequent phases include fire department and Emergency Management Systems, or EMS, upgrades.

A progress report was given to county commissioners on May 1. Providing the update were Sheriff Brian Schlueter, Administrative Lt. Matt McGuire, Dispatch Supervisor Judy Siggerud, County Emergency Manager Patrick Waletzko and Chief Deputy Stacy Paulseth.

Narrow-banding was mandated by the Federal Communications Commission.

"Our goal is to have everyone on board and ready to go on Jan. 1, 2013," said County Board Chairman Lee Rogness. "This includes law enforcement, fire departments and EMS personnel. Improved safety and communication for county residents are two of the major reasons why our county is part of this changeover."

Most of the Otter Tail County dispatch center in Fergus Falls is operational, but it wasn't until February until the 800 MHz radio system was up and running.

The county board earlier approved a Motorola dispatch console and ARMER Connection contract. There currently are seven towers around the county as part of the changeover to the 800 MHz radio system. The last tower was positioned near Amor in central Otter Tail County.

"Minnesota chose to go to the ARMER system, which is the backbone for the system," said Sheriff Schlueter.

Law enforcement personnel throughout the county, starting in late 2011, began training on use of 800 MHz mobile and portable radios. The County Highway Department later on scheduled installation of the 800 MHz radios into vehicles, and highway employees received training in January and February.

McGuire said the county detention facility has been testing new radios, with employees also receiving training.

Grant money was obtained for radios for fire departments, and further avenues are being approached for additional funding. Later this month the county board will approve which funding avenue to take.

A new antenna structure was needed on top of the courthouse in Fergus Falls to support the microwave and 800-MHz antennas. Motorola technicians programmed the new MCC7500 consoles and dispatchers received training for the new system.

A competitive bid process is being used in the upgrade, which will include replacing old VHF radio equipment at four EMS paging sites with narrow-banded VHF paging radios. A fifth site may be added to enhance the paging system.