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Radio conversion will go into effect by 2013

Deputy Jarod Andersen uses his portable radio to communicate with the dispatch center at an accident scene Friday. At a recent meeting of emergency radio users, deputies, firefighters and emergency responders spoke of their difficulties communicating with each other and their bases from remote areas of the county. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

When legions of emergency workers descended on the I-35 bridge collapse scene Aug. 1, 2007, they came equipped with more than 300 mobile and portable radios, all talking at once, to each other and their dispatch centers.

There was barely a hitch in the communications because the Twin Cities area had already converted to digital frequencies.

Back in Hubbard County, in the fall of 2009, emergency personnel here struggled communicating with each other when they entered deep wooded territory searching for a dementia patient who'd wandered away from his care facility.

Nevis fire chief Kerry Swenson complained his squad is often talking over each other on the two analog channels they have available for communications.

And that's the beauty of the new digital conversion - it won't allow agencies to talk over each other, as demonstrated during the bridge collapse.

As law enforcement and emergency personnel take fledgling steps to comply with a federal mandate to upgrade their communications systems to narrowband digital frequencies, a user group has begun meeting to decipher the complex and expensive choices the county is facing.

Right now there are two: going with the majority of the state using a system called ARMER, an 800 Mhz system that would cost nearly $2 million, or expanding on existing equipment with a digital VHF option, which could end up costing about the same. ARMER stands for Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency response.

"I have no preference," Hubbard County Sheriff Frank Homer told the user group that met last week to explore their options. He said he wants the best, cheapest option for the county. Period.

Radio representatives made presentations to the Hubbard County Board of Commissioners last month.

"When they got done, the board said they were leaving the decision in the hands of one man," Homer told a group of radio users last week. "All those fingers were pointing at me. I need some help."

Homer said discussions by the users, dissecting an inexact consultant's report commissioned to help the county decide, will start the process toward the conversion, which must take effect Jan. 1, 2013.

Aside from the taxpayer cost to purchase or upgrade radio towers, repeaters, microwave technology and radios, the only noticeable difference to the public will be the death of the "10-code."

Officers will no longer indicate "10-4" for Roger or yes. They will simply say yes, they got the message and understood it. Abandoning the code, which often varies from department to department, state-to-state or region-to-region, is an FCC requirement, along with the overall conversion.

Replacing "10-4" is the new buzzword: "interoperability."

Regardless of which system the county chooses, or which neighboring counties choose, they will be able to communicate with each other, and with all the other agencies that use radios to communicate.

That's interoperability.

The narrowband mandate means emergency responders, law enforcement, fire departments, state patrol officers and road crews "will each take up half as much space on the radio dial to make twice as many channels available" to other users, said Doug Sherf of Roger's Two Way Radio in Bemidji. The company is assisting the local group of radio users make sense of the proposed changes.

The county currently has three radio towers that would have to be upgraded if it chooses the digital VHF option.

With ARMER, the State Patrol, which has committed to that system, would build five radio towers throughout the county.

The users group had a spirited debate as to which system would provide better coverage. As one user put it, "That whole area between Highway 200 and Akeley is one big gully."

Radio signals in and out of that region are almost impossible, the group agreed. They peppered Sherf with questions about how their portable radios would work in the county's remote areas and gulches.

"You need a certain minimal strength to make a connection," agreed Jeremy Vogel, a technician with Roger's.

One of the unknowns is how mobile and portable radios will transmit in the field, in either system.

The radio users all had stories about situations in which their communications were rendered inoperable in the field, by poor signal strength caused by rugged terrain.

Emergency Medical Technician Bucky Johnson wondered if going with the ARMER system was a no-brainer. Wouldn't five radio towers be better than three, he questioned.

Although the county would own its VHF towers, while the state would have ownership of the five ARMER towers, Vogel said, "VHF has 10 times more signal strength because of the physics behind" the way the signal travels.

An added benefit is that the portable radios would be waterproof. That is a godsend for firefighters.

The radio users group will continue to meet through the winter to make a choice.

"As far as Hubbard County is concerned, we know that a digital VHF system can be built that will outperform the ARMER system for less money," Vogel said in an e-mail Tuesday. "Hubbard County has been using a VHF system for the past 30 years that is highly reliable."

Swenson said firefighters have already received $206,000 in grant monies for radios. And they're wondering if they should forego some of the money in hand for a chance at a bigger grant in the future.

But when the decision is made and the radio conversion begins, communiqués like "10-1" will be a thing of the past, along with other language that's become part of our popular lexicon.

"10-1" means the reception is poor.