Installation begins on ARMER radio tower in Hubbard County
The future of emergency radio transmissions is quietly going up in a snow-covered field in Henrietta Township.
Workers are installing the first of a series of 330-foot ARMER radio towers, the acronym for the Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response.
A multi-million dollar statewide conversion to narrowband radio equipment is underway that will transition all systems by Jan. 1, 2013. The interoperable system will use either ARMER or a VHF digital signal.
Two-thirds of Minnesota counties have gone with the ARMER system, which will be used in all state vehicles including DOT, State Patrol, DNR and other agencies.
Hubbard County has chosen to go with both systems and is one of the few to go with a dual band program.
The Henrietta Township tower will be one of eight that will eventually service the county, which currently has three.
Emergency response agencies have been meeting monthly to go over grant monies available. The original estimated cost was around $2 million for the conversion, but as technologies change, those costs are coming down rapidly.
Hubbard County's five fire departments made the decision last year to go with the 800 MHz ARMER system and have already secured federal grant monies to fund much of the new equipment needed.
Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes recently learned that nearly $200,000 in grant funds the department was pursuing were never followed through on.
North Memorial Ambulance's Park Rapids manager, Dennis Mackedanz, said there's plenty of grant money to defray the start-up costs and he urged Aukes last month not to worry.
The system allows cities, counties and state agencies to communicate with each other while responding to mass emergencies.
"The system is built for a disaster, not daily operations," he told firefighters, EMTs, police officers, county deputies and highway officials.
Hubbard County's communications were severely hampered when two EF-3 tornados rumbled through in 2008.
Responders' communications were garbled as they "stepped on" each other, all trying to communicate at once. One tower repeater got zapped and the situation became tenser the more agencies that responded.
The FCC wants all states to convert to a narrowband infrastructure, one of the recommendations of the 911 Commission formed after the terrorist attacks.
Communications, or lack of them, was one of the issues seized on by the 911 Commission. Millions of cell phone calls after the attacks clogged emergency communications, highlighting the necessity of seeking different frequencies.
Converting to narrowband, by essentially squeezing existing bandwidths, will accommodate more digital frequencies as cell phones and emergency radios compete for microwave air space for voice communication and data storage.
Reducing the available channels by half allows the spectrum to hold twice as many signals, radio experts have told the monthly meetings.
The tower being built by Data Cell Systems of Louisiana will be part of the state backbone local governments and emergency responders will share.
ARMER also has the ability to put mobile repeaters in squad cars, fire trucks and other vehicles that could boost a signal up to a mile.
Supervisor Gene Stout said it's been slow going in the cold. The tower had risen to 90+ feet last week, with more than 200 feet to go.
"This cold's been brutal," he admitted. He doesn't send his crews up in subzero wind chills, so workweeks are frequently interrupted. Stout said in the summer under ideal conditions, towers could be erected in a week to 10 days.
The Henrietta Township tower could take all month.
That's OK with local emergency agencies. Like dumpster divers or scavengers, they're swapping tips on grants, a little here, a little there, hoping to cobble together enough money to pay for a state-of-the-art radio system that will go live in less than two years, one radio at a time. And the end result won't be the proverbial tin can telephone.
Those "10-4s" will ring out crystal clear.