Ready or not, ARMER radio system here

Come Monday all law enforcement officers in Becker County, no matter what department they work for, will be on the same "page." That's when the big switch over to ARMER radio happens. Law enforcement will be the first online; soon to follow will ...

Sgt. Shane Richard is overseeing the switch to ARMER radios for the Becker County Sheriff’s Office.

Come Monday all law enforcement officers in Becker County, no matter what department they work for, will be on the same “page.”

That’s when the big switch over to ARMER radio happens. Law enforcement will be the first online; soon to follow will be area fire departments, EMS and other emergency responders.

ARMER, which stands for Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response, is what Minnesota named its statewide public safety radio system.

At first glance, which radio system first responders use may not seem too interesting to most, but if and when a disaster happens, experts believe ARMER will saves lives. It was a hard lesson learned on September 11, 2001.

Inefficient communication


As Becker County Sheriff’s Sgt. Shane Richard does presentations and helps train area law enforcement on the ARMER system, he has countless stories to pull from as to when and how ARMER could have helped save lives. Probably none are more powerful than the one of 9-11.

Richard says when the terrorist attacks happened, emergency personnel were not on the same radio systems, including police and firefighters.

“After the planes hit the buildings, police were flying around in a helicopter, and they started to see structure failure - they recognized this building is coming down,” said Richard, who says police put out a call on the NYPD radios to get out of the building. Firefighters never got that message.

“So as police were coming down, firefighters were going up into the burning building - they didn’t know what police knew,” said Richard. “Obviously we know what happens after that, and a lot of lives could have been saved if we’d had a better communications system.”

As of Monday, we do.

Coming together

After 9-11, Minnesotans began seeing a small “911 fee” on their phone bills. A fund was being created to begin building the infrastructure for the ARMER communications system.

According to Richard, the idea was to start in the most populated areas of the state, with MnDOT building towers in the Twin Cities area, St. Cloud and Rochester.


Itasca County then built its own $12 million dollar towers to plug into the ARMER system - a move very few agencies or counties could afford. The White Earth Indian Reservation also paid to get itself plugged into the system.

But a handful of years into it, the 911 funds continued to accumulate, thereby making it possible to provide significant grants to begin spreading into the upper half of the state as well.

Six towers were built in Becker County, with several other towers built on the fringes of the county that will provide a channel for local chatter.

On Monday, when officers from Becker County, Detroit Lakes, Frazee, Lake Park, Audubon, Ogema, and Callaway make the switch over to ARMER, they will literally be able to talk to any other public safety agency in the state that has plugged in.

According to Richard, different departments are jumping on board all the time and he expects that within the next year, nearly every county in the west central region will be on ARMER.

Not too far into the future, he says every agency in the state will all be able to communicate -from Kittson County in the northwest to the southeast tip of the state.

The $300 million state-wide system is now paid for, built and ready in most areas for agencies to begin transmitting.

What this means to you


Although most people go through the day not thinking about a major disaster that could strike at any moment, emergency responders do. They’re trained to contemplate the worst case scenario that will likely never happen, but could.

“There’s a lot of bad stuff that can happen,” said Richard. “A 747 crashing into the high school, a tornado out at WE Fest, a train derailment…”

Richard says if a train derailed in Detroit Lakes carrying Bakken crude oil, the situation would require an incredible response in order to save lives.

“If you have all the crude oil that keeps spilling into the streets of Detroit Lakes, down gutters, starting pavement and buildings on fire, and there’s a toxic cloud coming across… that’s a major event,” said Richard, who says public safety personnel in Becker County cannot hold their breath and hope nothing happens, because it can, and it does.

“When we need to bring in 200 cops, 115 fire departments and 75 ambulances, we all need to be able to work with each other and talk to each other about tactical resources,” said Richard, who says if a disaster happens to take out a few towers, communication can usually be bounced off one of the other surrounding towers.

But if too many in one area go offline, there’s a backup for that as well. The regions all have portable towers that can be pulled behind a truck and set up anywhere a disaster happens.

Richard says he also expects to someday see more agencies like the Red Cross, street departments and even schools on ARMER.

“It’s our system - nobody owns it,” he said, adding that public safety agencies from every region of the state have representatives on the board that runs the radio system, assuring that no one person or agency can use it for personal agenda.


Richard says law enforcement will keep its previous radio systems up and running until other emergency personnel are on ARMER, as to not lose contact during the transitional period.

He says FEMA officials are recognizing Minnesota as being one of the few states leading the way for this kind of a complete, inclusive and effective communications system and believes other states will look here for guidance on how to do it well.

“We always hope that nothing is going to happen,” said Richard. “But it’s when there’s an emergency situation on a large scale that this thing really shows its true colors.”

Tweets by @DLNewspapers

Paula Quam joined InForum as its managing digital editor in 2019. She grew up in Glyndon, Minnesota, just outside of Fargo.
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