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Region studying new network

Editor's note: This is a first in a three-part series on the groundwork being laid for a transition to a digital communications network among public safety and emergency response personnel.

Editor's note: This is a first in a three-part series on the groundwork being laid for a transition to a digital communications network among public safety and emergency response personnel.

After Sept. 11, 2001, the nation recognized the loss of life that resulted when public safety personnel couldn't communicate with each other.

Six years later, the Interstate 35W bridge collapse became a model of how well agencies can work together when communications systems are interconnected.

Achieving interoperability among public safety and emergency response agencies in rural areas is proving to be more difficult than in the seven-county metro area, however.

And it's going to come with a big price tag. Some say it will cost $1 million just to upgrade the communications network in Hubbard County.

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There isn't a choice. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has set deadlines, but local responders agree the time is right for a coordinated statewide, shared radio system anyway. The airwaves are filling up and new technology is available to go another direction.

Emergency communications in the future will be digital rather than analog just like cellular telephones and televisions.

Northwest Minnesota counties are collaborating to make the transition work.

Frank Homer of the Hubbard County Sheriff's Office has been attending meetings twice a month to learn what's going to be required to make the conversion and make sure the county will be eligible for grants to help pay the bill.

Hubbard County will join Clearwater, Kittson, Marshall, Polk, Becker, Clay, Lake of the Woods, Norman, Red Lake, Beltrami, Mahnomen, Pennington and Grant counties, Moorhead and White Earth and Red Lake tribal government to establish a Northwest Regional Radio Board through a joint powers agreement.

This new regional board will require an annual budget for administrative and operational expenses. In addition, a capital expense account will be created to provide additional coverage or capacity.

Homer has learned there is nothing simple about the change.

After 2011, Homer said, "the government says we can't buy, repair or service analog radios. By 2013, we have to be changed over completely."

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Ripple effect

The ramifications ripple outward like a rock thrown into water.

It's not just the sheriff's dispatch and deputies, but all law enforcement: police, Boat and Water, the state patrol and conservation officers. Interoperability encompasses ambulances, First Responders and hospitals. Public safety agencies are involved, too. These include fire departments and Department of Natural Resources Forestry, Parks and other divisions.

Eventually, public transportation, including school buses and county and state road crews, also will be rolled into the system.

A major incident, such as a forest fire or tornado, can involve dozens of agencies.

"It is no small transformation and it's ignited by the FCC," Homer said. "Hubbard County residents are going to have to know and realize the ball is in our court."

One reason to worry about it now, Homer said, is to gear up for a new system, but it's also to be able to pay for it.

Some state and federal grant money will be available, but nowadays grants are only successful when they represent a collaborative effort.

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In June, the Park Rapids Fire Department submitted a grant application to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for nearly $300,000 to update communications equipment. The application was made on behalf of the Nevis, Akeley, Lakeport, Lake George and Park Rapids fire departments along with the sheriff's office.

If successful, the grant would be a step, Homer said. At the same time, he reminded, everyone in the country wants a piece of the money that's available. "Anything we see we're applying for."

Just in case, Donn Hoffman, Park Rapids fire chief, has a request for $248,000 for radio equipment in the city's capital improvement plan for 2012.

State's help expected

At the same time, the state is surveying each county to determine its infrastructure needs. Infrastructure includes towers and dispatch centers, according to Homer. The state has committed to helping with that infrastructure, and is requiring a Regional Radio Board as part of it, he explained.

The northwest region board hasn't been established yet, but the goal is to have one in place by Jan. 1. Homer chairs the policy committee of the advisory committee that's been working on the task for two years.

"We need to put together what our needs are and how we can go about it," Homer said.

One pressing decision to be made is which type of digital system to go with. There are two avenues: an 800-megahertz (MHz) or a VHF (very high frequency) system.

The metro area and state agencies have gone to or will be going to the 800 MHz system and the state has promised to support it, Homer said. Local vendors can only provide VHF equipment and are appealing to go that route so they won't be carved out of the pie.

"We're still gathering information and looking for direction to know what we're getting into," Homer said.

Another goal is to make sure there is proper representation from counties, municipalities and reservations to get state funds, he said.

Homer has brought others to the regional meetings, including Dennis Mackedanz of North Ambulance, John Lombard, the county's emergency services manager, and county board chair Cal Johannsen, who has already been chosen to serve on the Northwest Regional Radio Board.

Making the right decisions

"It's like buying a new car," Homer said. "First, you survey the dealers' parking lots. You don't want to buy a Cadillac if you only need a Chevrolet. You have to know what's good for the county and make sure you're making the right decision." He believes the more people who are involved, the better the results will be.

The advisory committee will turn over its recommendations to the Regional Radio Board, which will have one commissioner from each county represented and one from Moorhead. In addition, three committees (a Regional Advisory Committee, Regional User Committee and Owners and Operators Committee) will select one member to serve on the board.

The plan is for Greater Northwest Emergency Management Services staff to serve as fiscal agent and administer the new structure, which is the backbone of the system, according to Tom Vanderwal, director.

"We can see benefits down the road if we play our cards right," Vanderwal added, explaining that means working through a collaborative, regional approach.

Down the road, he said, the important part is that "your 800 MHz can talk to my VHF... developing a standardized system."

In the metro area, the 800 MHz system worked well, Homer added. Unlike Hurricane Katrina when no one could talk to each other, you didn't hear that communication failed on the bridge collapse.

"It's huge and we don't want to be left out," Homer said. "We are out to get something effective at a reasonable cost. I'm confident we will make the right decision and the county will get proper representation.

"We're exploring all options to cover the costs of this transformation," he said.

That would be a very large first step.

luannh@parkrapidsenterpise.com

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