800 MHz radio system to improve comunications

Princeton Fire and Rescue Department captain Randy Cook talks on one of the new 800 MHz radios that have been issued to the department.

The sheriff’s and police departments in Mille Lacs County have begun operating on 800 MHz digital two-way radios.

Mille Lacs County Sheriff Brent Lindgren, holding one of the new 800 MHz radios last week.

Approximately 130 of the radios were distributed about two weeks ago to fit into a new state system designed to improve radio communications.

The state’s new system is called Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response (ARMER).

Emergency services, public works departments and other agencies throughout the state were given the choice some time ago to choose one of two options by the end of this year to change their two-way radio setup, according to Al Fjerstad. Fjerstad manages the emergency services department in Mille Lacs County and also manages the county’s Public Service Answering Point (PSAP).

The radio tower at the sheriff’s building in Milaca, with the microwave sending and receiving equipment shaped like a small white dome, part way up the tower.

The latter is the new name for the county’s dispatch center at the sheriff’s department in Milaca.

The two radio system options that agencies and departments could choose from were to either narrow band, or shorten the band width of their VHS radio system, or go with the new 800 MHz system.

Mille Lacs County chose the 800 MHz option. Sheriff Brent Lindgren and Fjerstad explained last week that narrowing the band width would have been more costly because of the many towers that would have to be installed across the county. Those repeater towers would eventually have to be about 6.3 miles apart to be effective in the much narrower VHS band width, Fjerstad and Lindgren agreed.

The mandate to choose one of the two options evolved from an analysis of the emergency response to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, says Princeton Police Chief Brian Payne. There was a radio communication problem between some emergency responders at the attack site in New York City, explained Payne. He and his department have been gearing up for the change to the new 800 MHz radio system for about nine years and part of that has been the application for grants to offset the cost.

Lindgren, meanwhile, has also been applying for grants to get the radio system established in the county, as well as for upgrading and relocating the dispatch center inside the sheriff’s department/jail complex.

Mille Lacs County’s PSAP was for many years nestled in the middle of the county jail. Because of jail security, there was no opportunity for face-to-face contact between dispatchers and officers, wanting at times to talk in person.

Now the Mille Lacs County PSAP has been relocated to the basement of the jail building, away from the jail cells. The equipment is new and has many modern features in the layout of three dispatch electronic consoles, plus a fourth console for managing the entire layout. More equipment sits in another room nearby, to someday give the 911 calling system more enhanced features.


Lindgren sees many pluses

Lindgren was upbeat as he stood in front of a white board in his office building, explaining the new radio system.

Both Lindgren and Fjerstad agreed that the new system is superior in interoperability, which Lindgren said is all important in emergency response. The Minnesota Department of Public Safety defines interoperability as “the ability to communicate as needed on demand and as authorized at all levels of government across all public safety disciplines.” One plus that officers and firefighters talked about when describing the new radio system, is that it enables first responders anywhere in the state to talk to each other.


New digital tower system

Mille Lacs County has a series of towers to handle the new 800 MHz communication. Three microwave towers, one each at Pease in Mille Lacs, and Gilman and Duelm in Benton County, form a triangular simulcast system for coverage in the majority of Mille Lacs. These towers pick up radio signals sent out in the field and send them to the master switch office in St. Cloud, which sends it into a large computer in St. Cloud, which then sends the signals to the intended radio recipients, Fjerstad said.

Actually, the Gilman tower covers the majority of Mille Lacs, Fjerstad said. Coverage for the northern part of the county is handled mainly by independent repeater towers in Onamia in Mille Lacs, Woodland in Kanabec County and Borden Lake in Crow Wing, Fjerstad said.

While there may be some spots inside a building where the radio communication isn’t complete with a hand-held radio, there is no such problem anywhere in Mille Lacs with the 800 MHz radios in the patrol cars, Lindgren said.

But in the older VHF radio world, the distance a hand radio signal would travel was maybe five miles and for the car radio was maybe 25 miles, Lindgren added. The county’s old VHS system relied solely on repeater towers to boost the signal and if a Mille Lacs officer drove to St. Cloud their radio signal would not reach the repeater tower in Milaca, Lindgren said.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) put up the towers for the new ARMER radio system and the locations have worked well in Mille Lacs, with the county’s long, narrow shape and the state highways running through, Lindgren said. He noted that MnDOT likes to have these towers along major roads to help its truck drivers communicate.

The new 800 MHz radio system has the basic 16 channels that emergency services have used for many years, plus now it has many extra channels that are “encrypted,” Lindgren pointed out. Communication over the encrypted channels, he explained, can’t be overheard by people who do not have a need to know. Lindgren cited officer safety as a big reason for that feature.


The cost

Cost for the 800 MHz system in Mille Lacs and the grants obtained to offset the costs were not assembled in time for this story, but Lindgren said the cost for Mille Lacs to implement the new system was estimated at about $2.5 million in 2008.

Princeton Fire and Rescue obtained grants to get radios for their department, while the fire and rescue departments in Onamia, Isle and Milaca applied for grants as a group.


Distribution of radios

About 140 of the new radios have been delivered to the county’s fire departments but the firefighters still have to complete training on them, Fjerstad said. The county’s public works department and the jail staff  “migrated,” or moved into the new radio system this past spring, he said.

Fjerstad noted that some departments in the county have elected to not go with the 800 MHz option and said they include the public works departments in Princeton, Milaca and Onamia.


Any glitches?

Morrison County has reported some difficulties with using the 800 MHz radios inside some buildings. When that was mentioned to Princeton Fire Chief Jim Roxbury, he said that has sometimes been the case for his department. But much of that has been remedied at Princeton Fire and Rescue by replacing the short antennas that were on the first 800 MHz radios ordered, with longer antennas, Lindgren and Fjerstad noted.

Lindgren, Fjerstad and Payne agreed that the new radio system is not perfect, but that it is far better than the old system.

Payne has also worked on solutions for when a portable radio has a signal problem inside a structure, such as in the lower level of a building with a metal roof. For example, if his officers ever have a problem communicating inside the new Walmart store when it opens in Princeton, the officers can switch to a “walkie talkie” type channel. With that, officers who are inside can reach each other and communicate with the command post outside that has a car radio to link with the whole radio network, Payne said.


Nice features

Among the features on the new radios:

n An orange button on the radio that the operator can push if they are in a situation of needing emergency help. The button activates a “hot mike,” meaning the radio then picks up the sounds where the officer is located and an alarm goes off at dispatch so personnel there might hear if the officer is in distress. The officer has 20 seconds at that point to tell the dispatcher if he or she had accidentally pushed the button. After the 20 seconds goes by, there is a procedure for shutting the mike off.

n The new radio system allows a person to be able to talk to the dispatcher more quickly to give an update on an incident, such as to give a more accurate description of a car.

n The radios have visual and audible indicators to tell if the signal is getting to its intended location. Under the old system, the user may not have known if the signal didn’t go through.

The strength of the communication in the field with the new radios is better, according to Princeton fire captain Randy Cook. He described the difference between the old VHF system and the new one as being like “night and day.” He mentioned the example of when Princeton firefighters called from the location of a house fire this past summer in Princeton Township to Baldwin Township firefighters. The communication was very clear, something that wouldn’t have happened with the old VHF radios, Cook said.