There is a two-car accident downtown. Meanwhile, the fire department is battling a blaze across town while police are on foot in pursuit of a burglar. While this scenario is not a current news item, it is a situation that could be a reality. Local law enforcement and emergency services are perfectly capable of responding, but there can be a challenge trying to communicate with dispatch, competing with the other services also trying to communicate at the same time.


 


There is a two-car accident downtown. Meanwhile, the fire department is battling a blaze across town while police are on foot in pursuit of a burglar. While this scenario is not a current news item, it is a situation that could be a reality. Local law enforcement and emergency services are perfectly capable of responding, but there can be a challenge trying to communicate with dispatch, competing with the other services also trying to communicate at the same time.

This is one of the problems that the new Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response (ARMER) is intended to solve.

Support for a unified radio system was realized after 9/11, when emergency responders learned how challenging communication among various departments can be. Since then, the concept has slowly spread across America, eventually reaching Minnesota where the ARMER system had been in development since the late 1980s. Now it is finally coming to Chippewa County.

The change is a mandatory one, issued by the FCC which also wants to narrow the usage of radio to make room for other systems. Counties across the nation were given three options: switching to a narrowbanding — which is essentially a means to switch one frequency into two — system, a digital system or the ARMER system.

As Chippewa County?Sheriff Stacy Tufto explained, the ARMER system came out clearly as the most advantageous.

“The benefits are very exciting,”?Tufto said. “To give some idea of how much capability this system has, I could talk to dispatch from Duluth on my radio.”

The ARMER system  is a digital one that operates by providing users with various “talk groups.” Talk groups take the place of frequencies, and each county will have access to dozens. There are local, regional, state and national talk groups that can be utilized depending on the scope of events, which also make it easy to quickly get in contact with agencies elsewhere.

Different zones are easily switched to on a emergency responder’s or officer’s radio by the turn of a switch.

In Chippewa County, the police department, the sheriff’s department and the fire department would all have their own talk group, as would any other emergency, city or county group connected with the system. They would be able to communicate with each other effectively, and switch over to talk to dispatch when needed, instead of having to wait or compete while others try to use the same frequency for their communication.

“If there was an event where multiple services were needed, we could jump onto each others’ talk group and tell everyone involved to jump onto yet another talk group and use that one to communicate,” Tufto explained. “The system has a lot of capabilities.”

Dispatch, meanwhile, would be able to monitor each talk group to see which are being used and which are free.

The best illustration for the ARMER system comes from the I-35 bridge collapse in 2007. When the bridge collapsed, 45 agencies worked together to respond, and were able to do so effectively by using the ARMER system’s talk group layout.

The system could have similar uses in Chippewa County in the case of a flood when state agencies are called in to help and need to communicate with local agencies, while not hamstringing their ability to continue normal operations. The system also allows for law enforcement on the local and county levels to communicate effectively, as well as with other cities when working together.

“Let’s say we’re working together on a drug bust, while also dealing with a traffic incident. We would be able to jump into different talk groups to communicate and plan for each scene,”?Tufto said.

With so many agencies on the same system, it might not seem unreasonable to be worried about the whole system going down, leaving countless agencies without the means to communicate. However, the way the system is setup through towers across the state — each able to function individually if it had to — all communicating with each other constantly, creating redundancy, loss of service is actually nearly impossible.

“This system is actually a lot safer than the old one,”?Tufto said.

Bringing the system to Chippewa County is expensive, costing around $900,000. Tufto explained that so far Marv Garbe, community emergency services manager, was able to secure a $500,000 grant for the firefighters to help toward the system, while an additional $361,000 has been raised in other grants already, leaving only $39,000 left to be allocated.

The county was quoted $31,000 a year for a maintenance contract which had caused some hesitation from the board of commissioners, but Tufto said the actual final figure will not be nearly so high.

“They were just showing us a worst case scenario for budgeting purposes,”?Tufto said. “They wouldn’t want to under quote and make it look like a bait and switch.”

He hopes to see the final maintenance figure closer to $20,000 yearly.

Tufto also explained that  the cost of this system will not come back to the taxpayers.

“It’s all coming out of reserves, grants and 9/11 money,”?Tufto said.

The system will come online sometime before Dec. 21, 2012, to avoid fines by the FCC.

“It will be like flipping a switch,”?Tufto said. “It will all come up at the same time.”