County choses ARMER radio system upgrade
Hubbard County entered into a participation plan that will eventually result in purchasing the state radio system, reversing a preference for upgrading the VHF emergency radio system.
The switch came about at Wednesday's board meeting when radio consultant GeoComm made a presentation on the ARMER (Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response) system.
The county has been involved in numerous meetings over the past two years to determine if it should go with the northwest district it belongs in, upgrading its VHF, or going with ARMER to comply with a nationwide mandate to convert to narrowband radio.
Rey Freeman, a consultant with GeoComm, gave a lengthy presentation comparing the qualities of both systems, and the cost. A roomful of emergency responders, firefighters, police and ambulance personnel attended.
Commissioner Kathy Grell, whose mind works at warp speed, peppered Freeman with questions while jotting down notes.
"By my calculations the ARMER system would cost us $400,000 and the VHF upgrade would cost $673,000," she said. Freeman could barely suppress a smile.
"Your figures are correct," he responded.
"Is there anybody in this room that thinks we should go with the VHF upgrade?" Grell asked.
There was silence and smiles.
The decision has been a hotly political one and likely played a role in the sheriff's race between Cory Aukes and Frank Homer.
After the series of meetings and outside study, most of the emergency personnel in the county had wanted to go with the ARMER system, regarded as the Rolls Royce of radios.
Homer chose to upgrade the county's VHF radios at what was then presented as the much cheaper option. He wanted to stay with the northwest region, mostly money-strapped counties wanting a quick fix.
In doing so, he bypassed many state grants aimed at purchasing ARMER equipment.
That angered the law enforcement community. The county's five fire chiefs chose to go with ARMER and purchased their equipment with grants.
A permanent rift grew.
Much of the law enforcement community turned its support to Aukes and openly supported him.
But the decision still worries commissioners.
"If most of the northwest region stays with VHF is it in our best interest to go with ARMER?" he asked Freeman.
"That's a good question," Freeman said. "VHF is not cutting it in many areas of the state."
And Freeman said some surrounding counties have already chosen the ARMER system so Hubbard County won't be out in left field alone.
Freeman pointed out there's no state grants to upgrade old equipment. The county would be on its own in choosing VHF.
The state, under the ARMER system, is building and maintaining all the towers needed. Upgrading the VHF system would entail more work at the tower sites, costing the county more money.
But Freeman said the ARMER system would take a lot of education, something Hubbard County Emergency Manager Brian Halbasch agreed with.
"I'm going to have a lot of homework," he remarked.
Early estimates of the radio conversion costs were in the millions of dollars.
"Finally it's not as frightening as we were originallyold," Robinson said at the end of the presentation. But he admitted to being "still nervous in a region drinking funny water," referring to the counties staying with VHF.
"Today's a new day," Aukes told the board. "My predecessor had his reasons. I have my own."
The committee Homer formed had strongly recommended the ARMER system.
"I'm going to respect the wishes of those committee members," Aukes said. "They put in a lot more time than I ever have. It's in the county's best interest to go with ARMER."
Freeman stressed that approving the participation plan does not commit the county to spending money.
Agreement in the participation plan will be forwarded on to the regional radio board and advisory committee, then the state radio board. It simply "reiterates the local ARMER configuration to state officials," Freeman said,
There will be another study of the radio needs under the participation plan.
The ARMER system is Internet driven, and much like cell phones, radios would roam from tower to tower for the best signal. Each tower will have five repeaters.
The only downside is that the console Hubbard County purchased after the 2008 tornado could be retrofitted to adapt to the ARMER equipment, but Freeman suggested buying new.
After the meeting radio vendors and officers all walked together back to the law enforcement center, unified - and elated - over how radically things can change in a year.