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Radio technology: High tech help or distraction?

Dep. Jeremiah Johnson has two radios he monitors, one on his dashboard and one on his shoulder. Hubbard County Sheriff Frank Homer leaves it up to each road officer as to how many channels on the emergency frequencies they wish to monitor.

Discussion of Hubbard County's upcoming radio needs evolved into some concerns that road deputies are being so overwhelmed by the technology at their disposal it could become a driving hazard.

Dashboard computers, GPS technology, cell phones and the addition of numerous new radio channels to the spectrum has the potential to become a major distraction, maintain some Hubbard County commissioners, two of which are former law enforcement agents.

"As with all technology out there, there's a lot of overkill," said commissioner Don Carlson.

"It becomes prohibitive," said commissioner Dick Devine, a retired State Patrol trooper. "There's too much out there."

Many state agencies and the fire departments in Hubbard County are converting to am 800 megahertz radio system in the future.

Because Hubbard County will purchase a VHF digital system, all those radios must be compatible for each department to communicate with another during a bona fide multi-agency emergency.

Dispatchers can patch the various radio systems together to allow that communication, then assign certain emergencies to a "talk group."

But it's that constant radio chatter and switching channels that concerns Devine.

"Are they listening to all those channels?" he asked Hubbard County Sheriff Frank Homer. "It would drive you nuts. You wouldn't hear the stuff you needed to."

Homer said the 800 megahertz system is not hooked up yet, but currently deputies can choose to monitor as many channels as they wish to.

"Sometimes I think this gets a little carried away," Devine said. "If you get too many distractions it isn't always for the best."

Although the new technology streamlines law enforcement and emergency operations, being too wired could backfire.

Homer said fortunately in northwest Minnesota there are "no major catastrophic events."

But he also cautions road deputies, "You don't need to be talking to everyone" on the radio.

The New York Times recently investigated the use of gadgets in emergency vehicles and found numerous "tragic anecdotes" that sometimes claimed a life while emergency personnel were trying to save one.

Police officers and paramedics admitted being distracted by the technology in their vehicles - while most states try to limit motorists' use of that same technology.

Meanwhile, Devine reported the county's technology committee is looking into replacing the 911 system.

"It's reached the point of antiquity," he said of the 10-year-old system. "It's running on Windows 98."

Devine told the board there's $190,000 in the phone tax fund dedicated to the upkeep of the emergency phone system.

"A new system will run in the vicinity of $150,000," he said.

Sarah Smith

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

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