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Statewide radio cost is below original estimates

Firefighters have chosen to purchase the ARMER 800 megahertz radio system. Although the system is much more expensive than a conversion to digital VHF radios, one advantage is that fire trucks could be equipped with repeaters, which will boost signal strength up to one mile. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

The perceived astronomical costs of a statewide emergency radio conversion came down to real dollars and cents for Hubbard County last week, and the end result was stunning.

The county may be able to install either the VHF digital or 800 megahertz (MHz) radio systems for $500,000 to $780,000, well below the ballpark figures of $1 million to $2 million that have been tossed around. That is according to sales representatives that attend regional radio users' monthly meetings.

More significantly, the state ARMER system, which is the 800 MHz software, would be competitively priced due to the availability of a $10 million pool of grant funds to aid counties in beginning the expensive conversion. ARMER is the Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response.

The 800 MHz software has long been regarded as the Cadillac of radio systems and unaffordable to cash-strapped counties. ARMER will eventually provide radio service to all state agencies, including DOT, the DNR, the State Patrol and Human Services agencies under a federal mandate to switch all emergency communications to narrowband frequencies by 2013.

The state is erecting and maintaining 328 towers throughout Minnesota, with eight that would service Hubbard County.

"It will provide wicked good coverage," said Chris Lentz, a sales representative for Motorola Radio.

An abrupt decision

The cost revelations prompted fire chiefs in Akeley, Nevis, Lakeport, Lake George and Park Rapids to immediately switch their $200,000+ in FEMA grant monies toward the purchase of the 800 MHz radios, said Nevis Fire Chief Kerry Swenson.

Park Rapids had formerly made a preliminary move toward the VHF digital equipment because it was compatible with existing radios and firefighters had applied for the grant under the auspices they'd go with VHF.

"We hope the Sheriff's Office will follow our lead," Swenson said.

But Park Rapids Fire Chief Donn Hoffman was the lone skeptic. He's perturbed the user group meetings have become high-pressured sales pitches by radio vendors and state officials pushing competing systems.

"Every time I go to a meeting I become a little more confused," he admitted. "The state should have never given us a choice. They should have just said, 'This is what we're going to do,'" and proceeded with the ARMER system.

Because the FEMA grant was regional, all five fire departments had to agree on one system or the other, Hoffman said.

"Our difference was pretty big," he said. "We were out of time. We had to do something."

Are costs and coverage reliable?

Hoffman openly questions the cost estimates, because for Hubbard County emergency personnel and law enforcement agencies, going with the ARMER system means starting from scratch. None of the current equipment can be adapted for use in the ARMER system, unlike the VHF digital equipment.

"I don't think there's any way in hell that $700,000 is going to buy this," Hoffman said of the ARMER equipment.

And the hard-sell tactics have resulted in a confusing mix of information being disseminated, including from consultants retained to guide Hubbard County's decision.

It boils down to coverage, which is somewhat up to conjecture, and the price.

Radio coverage in the more rugged areas of Hubbard County has been a chronic issue for emergency personnel.

The county's existing three towers don't allow blanket coverage in the gulch area near Lake George, the gullys outside Akeley, the Two Inlets and Itasca areas and up and down Highway 87, where one responder said, "you can't bang a repeater" to get a radio signal in or out.

"We get 230 calls a year and 40 to 50 are up in that Two Inlets-Itasca area," said Emergency Medical Technician Bucky Johnson of North Memorial Ambulance Service.

And that is of some concern to emergency responders because that northwest corner of the county sees a lot of recreation and accidents.

Coverage with the ARMER system is guaranteed at 90+ percent of the county, rugged regions included. But 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.

Many radio users said they don't have major coverage issues with their mobile vehicle radios, it's the hand-held portable radios that are problematic.

The VHF system promises reliability in the 80 percent range, mostly around the three existing towers.

Hubbard County Sgt. Cory Aukes talked of removing his portable radio and waving it in the air to get a signal.

"You don't know if you're going to hit the tower," Lentz agreed. "It's a liability."

But some users openly question whether coverage actually gets better with narrowband, or it's simply that voice clarity over the radio improves with the voice network systems.

Can the state pay for ARMER?

And the state's involvement and its push for the ARMER system is problematic for Hoffman, Sheriff Frank Homer and other users.

"Can the state support the infrastructure?" Homer questioned.

So did Hubbard County commissioner Cal Johannsen, who suggested the state's current fiscal dilemma doesn't inspire confidence that it can build the towers and help fund the conversion without burdening counties somewhere down the line, or raiding a dedicated 911 emergency fund to balance the state's budget shortfall.

"Somehow they have to take the state out of this and everyone will feel better," Johannsen said.

Scott Wiggins, the state's Emergency Communications Networks Division Director, said federal legislation would prevent states from depleting 911 emergency funds for other purposes. The funds accrue from landline and cell phone fees.

Wiggins agreed the coverage maps "can be very deceiving," but said the vendors "are contractually obligated to provide the coverage they can guarantee."

More meetings will follow before Hubbard County makes a final decision.

But because it's a small county that depends on the interoperability of its radio systems and the ability of a multitude of emergency responders being able to communicate when they render mutual aid, the county may have no choice but to walk in lockstep with the others.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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