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County chooses VHF digital radio over state ARMER plan

Hubbard County Dep. Jeremiah Johnson uses his mobile radio for most calls coming from the dispatch center and other vehicles. His portable radio, which is on his shoulder, is used when he leaves his vehicle. The county reports it has had few problems with its radios, even in the more rugged terrain. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

After nearly three years of meetings and study, Hubbard County voted Wednesday to move forward on the purchase of VHF digital radio equipment for emergency personnel, not align itself with the expensive state radio system called ARMER.

Sheriff Frank Homer said the VHF digital equipment makes the best fiscal sense for the county. He'd delay his recommendation, he said, "but there's grant monies out there and we need to move forward."

The decision caps months of wrangling between emergency personnel on whether to purchase the state system or VHF.

The national conversion to narrowband radio, to accommodate more emergency channels, was a directive of the 9/11 commission in the wake of the World Trade Center bombings.

Hubbard County began purchasing some VHF equipment gradually a few years ago. It was the unanimous recommendation of engineers consulted to weigh in on what would work best for the region. The county used nearly $141,000 in Homeland Security grant funds to begin upgrading its equipment.

Homer said the engineers concluded, "ARMER (the Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response) was the better choice for densely populated areas and the VHF worked better for rural areas," Homer reported.

The debate has pitted the metro area against outstate counties that don't have the money to purchase the expensive 800 megahertz system, even though the state will furnish the towers it will operate off of. Numerous counties surrounding the Twin Cities metro area chose the ARMER system, and state officials put heavy pressure on Hubbard County to follow suit. About two-thirds of the state's 87 counties have committed to go with ARMER.

But the tower locations, directed toward the highways, since State Patrol troopers are on the ARMER system, troubled some Hubbard County officials who wondered if it would have left the more rugged regions without coverage.

The county's five fire chiefs voted 4-1 to purchase ARMER after a state official recommended it last month.

Now that decision could change, said Park Rapids Fire Chief Donn Hoffman, the lone opponent.

The five agencies received a $206,000 FEMA equipment grant. Hoffman said he's been assured "the money won't go away" even though the grant period expired Feb. 26.

Hoffman said FEMA officials would help the departments amend the grant to purchase whichever equipment they choose.

He said the fire departments "made it clear if Hubbard County went digital they'd prefer to mirror that."

Hubbard County joined a consortium called the Northwest Regional Radio Board that includes 14 counties. The group formed to enhance their purchasing power and clout to obtain grant funds.

"Will both systems have their flaws?" Homer asked in answer to the board's question of which would work best.

"You bet they will."

But the sheriff said the county's current radio system functions well now and can only improve with the upgrade. "We've never lost a citizen or a responder" due to inadequate communications, he said.

The system must be implemented by Jan. 1, 2013. Preliminary cost estimates run in the $500,000 area.

Hoffman worries if the fire chiefs don't switch to the VHF system, they could be responsible for paying for a patch that would allow Hubbard County dispatchers and deputies to communicate with their units, something the original grant likely won't cover.

Sarah Smith

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

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