New technology is a great thing but the advances/improvements that are provided come with a price tag. And more often than not, the accompanying learning curve boggles the ordinary mind.
That’s the case with the new “next gen” communications technology that all state public service agencies and most county Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs) are now using. Only counties in the far northwest —that’s us folks — have not yet made the move to convert our old VHF (analog) systems to the new Allied Radio Matric for Emergency Response (ARMER) 800 MHz system.
The state’s move to ARMER was brought on by the federal government’s mandate that public radio communications use less space on the spectrum of radio waves. This was done to make room for more and other radio communications. To accomplish this the first “narrow banding” requirements went into effect on Jan. 1. Additional narrow banding requirements are expected by the end of the decade. To meet the first narrow banding requirement, Minnesota chose to convert public safety communications to a proprietary 800 MHz system.
This new computer-based system was facilitated by the creation of a network of communications towers. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT), which owns, operates and maintains this communication backbone, makes the towers available to county emergency service agencies at no cost. The cost for counties to go ARMER is for the purchase and installation of the new transmission equipment to go on those towers and for the purchase of 800 MHz radio systems for their PSAPs and mobile units.
Eldred & Marcoux upgrades
Many of the towers in this ARMER network have been around for years. Others were built by MnDOT to provide better radio coverage where it was needed. One of those new towers was recently constructed near Eldred. A replacement tower is currently being constructed at the Marcoux Corner tower site. The aging tower at Marcoux has been damaged by time and weather.
The State Patrol, MnDOT, Department of Natural Resources, Emergency Services and other state agencies have already completed the switch to ARMER. So have 69 of 87 the state’s counties. The state system is now 88 percent complete. The only counties that have not yet converted are those of us in the far northwest. After deciding several years ago to remain analog, the northwest group is now much more in the mood to convert to ARMER. It is no longer a matter of “if” counties will need to convert but “when.”
Beyond the ability to communicate with state agencies and counties that have made the switch to ARMER is the fact that replacement parts for the old analog systems are becoming harder and harder to find. It won’t be long before it will become almost impossible to keep the old VHF systems operating.
Page 2 of 2 - One PSAP per county
For reference, PSAPs are the dispatch centers operated by county sheriff’s departments. Each county has just one “official” dispatch center. Polk County’s PSAP is located in the Law Enforcement Center in Crookston.
Police departments in East Grand Forks and Crookston provide dispatch services for their operations but they are not recognized as PSAPs. Only county PSAPs have the ability to receive funding support from the 9-1-1 fees that are collected as a part of telephone billings.
All 9-1-1 calls go directly to the Polk County PSAP from where information is “dispatched” to the appropriate agency. Calls for law enforcement go direct to Sheriff’s Department patrol cars in the field or are relayed to the Crookston and East Grand Forks police departments. The PSAP also dispatches to fire departments in the county, to ambulance services, to State Patrol, etc.
The Crookston Police Department currently does its own dispatching during normal workday hours and then transfers that duty to Polk County for the period from 5 p.m. to 8 a.m. East Grand Forks does its own dispatching 24-7.
Since it no longer makes sense for Polk County to remain analog, more than a quarter of a million dollars has been budgeted for equipment updates in 2013. Actually, the conversion to 800 MHz was started several years ago when as replacement radios were needed for the Sheriff’s Department patrol cars, the county began purchasing and installing “dual-band” units. Dual-band radios have the ability to operate in both VHF and 800 MHz. Almost all of the department’s mobile units now have the dual-band units, so that part of the conversion is already in place.
Currently, $887,145 in Homeland Security grant program funding is available for those county PSAPs in Minnesota that have not yet converted to ARMER. This funding possibility contributes to the interest to go ARMER.
Upgrade or consolidate
The cities of Crookston and East Grand Forks must soon decide whether to purchase their own new 800 MHz equipment or to have the Polk County PSAP do all dispatching for them.
Residents of the two cities are already paying for that service through their property tax bills, so, while there are claimed benefits for maintaining dispatch operations in the county’s largest communities, it amounts to a duplication of cost and service.
Thoughts expressed in this column are those of the author and are not necessarily a reflection of the opinions of the other members of the Polk County Board.