Chisago County’s $10 million radio network close to completion

By Derrick Knutson

“Can you hear me now?” is likely to be uttered a whole lot less among emergency service personnel and other government workers in Chisago County come June.

The county, following suit with other counties across nation in an effort to adhere to an unfunded federal mandate, is upgrading the radio system used by its emergency service providers, public works officials and other governmental units.

Jon Eckel, Director of Management of Information and Communication Systems for Chisago County, said the new system, dubbed “Allied Radio Matrix Emergency Response” or “ARMER,” is becoming the industry standard and it mitigates most of the problems the county has been experiencing for years with its current radio network.

Some residents might already be familiar with new radio network, which has colloquially become known as “800 megahertz.”

Eckel explained all of the bandwidth under the analog signal has been used up, which means no additional radio or TV stations can operate on the signal. Thus the digital switchover started, first with television a couple years ago, and now emergency service radio is following in the same footsteps.

Eckel noted the federal government instituted the mandate to “narrowband” the nationwide radio network in the early 1990s, giving most local governments close to two decades to find the financing to upgrade their radios.

With ARMER, the amount of bandwidth used by emergency service radio is reduced by half.

Chisago County bonded the project and plans to pay off the $10 million it cost to buy radios, build towers and train personnel in how to operate ARMER over the next 20 years, Chisago County Administrator Bruce Messelt said.

The system should be operational near the end of June, coinciding with the opening of the county’s new communications center near Hazelden Addiction Treatment Center.

‘Akin to a cell phone’

Under the old radio system, police, fire and other government workers trying to communicate sometimes had a tough time getting a hold of the right people and understanding them when they did.

“Only one person could push the button at one time in the whole county in law enforcement,” Chisago County Sheriff’s Office Captain Robert Shoemaker said.

He noted the radio system was like that everywhere in the United States, until counties began implementing the digital ARMER.

With ARMER, interference is virtually non-existent, and users can easily speak to whomever they need to with the help of a dispatcher.

Shoemaker said if an officer needed to speak to someone on a specific channel with the old system, he or she would have to manually turn the dial, sifting through multiple channels, which could sometimes be difficult during emergency situations, at night, or when officers have gloves on.

With ARMER, the user simply contacts the dispatcher, says who he or she would like to speak to and the dispatcher makes the connection.

“This solution is akin to a cell phone solution where you only get to talk to the people that you need to talk to,” Shoemaker said.

ARMER is already in-use by a handful of metro counties, including Hennepin, which used the system during the 35W bridge collapse in 2007.

Shoemaker said ARMER worked flawlessly during that crisis.

“In the old days, every scene I’ve ever been on, every major disaster or crime, the single biggest difficultly we’ve dealt with in the field is communications,” Shoemaker said. “You just couldn’t talk to who you want to talk to. With this system, that doesn’t happen. Now we can focus on the crime scene or the disaster scene. We don’t have to focus on who we can’t communicate with.”

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