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County may be leaning toward VHF digital radio

In the ongoing, and what has become the highly politicized, high stakes gamble of which narrowband radio system Hubbard County should choose for the future, it's becoming apparent that a VHF digital system may provide comparable coverage at a much cheaper price.

Radio equipment vendors are lobbying county commissioners to install VHF equipment or a system called ARMER, depending on what they can furnish to the county.

"It's their winters in Hawaii," said one radio user at a meeting Thursday night in Park Rapids.

The estimated $2 million conversion must be done by 2013, according to a Federal Communications Commission mandate. That may seem a long way away, but the installation is estimated to take as little as six months and as long as two years, depending on its complexity.

A users group of emergency personnel has been meeting monthly to weigh the options.

"The more we hear, the less we understand," said a frustrated Park Rapids Fire Chief Donn Hoffman recently. That department selected the VHF system last week based solely on what was immediately available. The Fire Department couldn't wait for any more meetings. Its current radio system is failing - big time. The department was also facing a grant deadline to use $206,000, $40,000 locally.

Lakeport Fire Chief Gary Roerick voiced his frustration at the constant cost comparisons between the two systems under consideration. He said as First Responders, Emergency Medical Technicians and lifesavers, the first consideration should be saving lives, not saving money.

"Are we going to say your life is work $1 million or that yours is only worth $500,000?" he asked about weighing the options.

With all the high-falutin' equipment choices being tossed around for radio gear, Roerick said the reality in his area is that rescuers are frequently trudging through heavily wooded, hilly terrain armed with only hand-held radios to communicate with, to direct air rescue in.

Because those responders come from their homes, they don't have mobile radios in their vehicles.

They don't care about dashboard cameras that can stream live video to a dispatch center. All they want to do is be able to talk to each other and the lifeflight helicopter they're trying to get there as quickly as possible, Roerick said.

Enter Ron Vegemast, widely viewed as the "Father of ARMER," the Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response. That's the 800 megahertz system used in the metro area that 65 Minnesota counties have now committed to.

Vegemast, at the invitation of Hubbard County Sheriff Frank Homer, spoke to the user group last Thursday night, urging them not to undertake the high expense of the system he helped design and build in 1989.

But he went farther. He wants a "disinterested qualified panel of engineers without ownership in a radio company" to take a look at what Minnesota is proposing, trying to pressure all counties to get on the ARMER plan with the incentive that the cash-strapped state will build the expensive tower infrastructure.

"It would be a very serious mistake for the state to proceed as it is," Vegemast told the group. The estimated $250 million cost statewide could actually mushroom to $700 million, he asserts.

The former field engineer for RCA said he "had a professional responsibility to speak out."

A state facing a multi-billion dollar deficit cannot afford a Cadillac radio plan, he said.

He believes the state could get by with VHF-D, as the digital plan is referred to, for $250 million.

"We're spending two-and-a-half, three times more money than we have to," he said. But the ARMER system has proven its capability in the metro area during the I-35 bridge collapse and dozens of emergency response agencies needed to communicate within their own agencies and with each other.

Vegemast questions whether that is needed in the rural areas, however. The line-of-sight transmissions probably won't work in heavily wooded, hilly areas, he said.

Homer believes going with the digital plan will save Hubbard County taxpayers $700,000.

"We know they both work," he said. The user group examined each system's strengths and weaknesses. Towers are a major expense. Some users who favor ARMER said it would be naïve for the county not to piggyback on a state-funded tower infrastructure. Others say the tower plan is inadequate.

Training dispatchers, who will have an integral role in the new communications systems, is also a factor. ARMER will require training, VHF-D likely won't since the county already has a VHF radio system.

The speakers also included Tim Thomas, Itasca County's dispatch coordinator. He spoke of the $10.2 million ARMER system his county installed a year ago, and how well it works. The county's share of the expense, after federal grants and state funding, was $2 million.

But he admitted it took a concerted effort to reach consensus.

"I'm not even going to go into the politics of it," he said vehemently.

The efficiency of the 800 megahertz system was worth the expense for his county, Thomas said.

Each user is assigned a "talk group" frequency within the system, so firefighters, police, deputies and EMTs aren't interrupting each other's communications as they often do now.

Dispatchers can patch the groups together if they need to talk to each other, Thomas said. Like air traffic controllers, dispatchers direct the flow of radio traffic in major events.

Vegemast said the VHF system would afford better coverage in Hubbard County's rugged areas such as Schoolcraft, the Badoura Forest region, Two Inlets and the gulch southeast of Lake George.

But money may be the biggest factor in the final decision.

Sarah Smith

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

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