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County likely will switch to Armer

Becker County appears to be heading towards adopting the Armer radio system for law enforcement and emergency workers, an abrupt turn away from the VHF digital radio system it had planned to pursue.

The Armer system would cost as much as $2.1 million total (including radios for all 28 public safety, public works and school districts in Becker County), but officials hope to offset a large portion of that through grant funding.

The VHF radios currently in use across Becker County proved nearly useless during a huge wildfire near Menahga earlier this spring, said Detroit Lakes Fire Chief Dave Baer.

“We had that Green Valley fire a few weeks ago and the radios worked very poorly,” he said. “We had to actually get hold of some Armer radios … they were crystal clear.”

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 several of them are in the process of making the switch.

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, according to Sheriff’s Sgt. Shane Richard. 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 only outstate Armer towers were located at a few MnDOT headquarters, including one in Detroit Lakes.

A state grant paid for firefighter radios back then, Baer said, and the department is now going to be part of a comprehensive volunteer firefighter grant application to pay for Armer radios for all fire departments within the county that want to participate.

The plan includes 40 mobile, 90 portable and 2 base 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.

“It definitely is the future,” Richard said. “It’s pretty much just our northwest region that isn’t doing it.”

It wasn’t an easy call back then, he added. Fargo-Moorhead and Cass and Clay counties were committed to the VHF radio system, and there was virtually no Armer tower coverage in northwestern Minnesota.

“They didn’t originally intend to expand to the rest of the state,” he said. “They later decided to use 911 (phone bill) fees to expand statewide.”

But at the time, Richard said, “if we were going to build our own 800 MHz Armer system, we would have had to build it ourselves — everybody in this region decided to go with the digital (VHF) system.”

There were risks and rewards with each type of system, but “the last sheriff (Tim Gordon) really wanted to stick with the digital (VHF) stand-alone version.

“Tim was trying to follow what he thought people in the region were doing,” said County Administrator Jack Ingstad.

There was also a natural unwillingness to give up local control of the sheriff’s department radio system.

While it’s a drawback to give up local ownership, the county also loses the headaches that go with maintaining the system, Richard said.

“MnDOT owns and runs the entire Armer system, the county just has to buy the radios,” he added.

The situation has changed enough now that switching to the Armer system is “kind of a no-brainer,” Richard said.

MnDOT 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.

“The statewide system will give us and anybody connected to the system the ability to talk to each other,” Richard said.

That’s especially important when multiple agencies come together for an emergency like the Green Valley fire, or the Wadena tornado of a few years ago.

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.

It will help in little ways, too: A deputy who transports a prisoner to the Twin Cities will be able to easily talk to Becker County dispatchers from Anoka County, for example, Richard said.

So-called “hard patches” can be used to convert digital VHF to be Armer-compatible, but the sound quality isn’t consistent, Richard said.

“The troopers have a patch to us right now,” he said. “They’re always complaining that they can’t hear us, they’re losing us, they get that choppiness. It’s like a bad cell phone connection.  We want to build out a good radio system that everybody can use and use well.”

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.

The County Board on Tuesday accepted a comprehensive report on the Armer system compiled by consultant Rey Freeman of Minnetonka-based GeoComm. Grant money will reimburse the county for his fee.

The report will serve as “kind of a blueprint” for the county’s plan to switch to the Armer system, Richard said.          

The plan will now go to the Technical Advisory Committee, the Operations and Technical Committee and the Regional Radio Board for approval.

The Becker County Board will ultimately decide whether to move ahead with the Armer system.