February 18, 2010 at 8:37 a.m.
‘Get everybody on one system’

Sheriff, county board hear from radio users

Sheriff, county board hear from radio users
Sheriff, county board hear from radio users

Several months ago a squad car driven by a Ramsey County deputy went off a road in Wyoming, crashed into a power pole and dropped a live powerline on the car and the roadway. When Wyoming Fire Chief Dennis Berry arrived at the nighttime scene he could see the responders from nearby agencies but he couldn't communicate with anybody by radio. Wyoming was on VHF. The ambulance EMTs and Washington County responders were not.

Berry said situations like this are made that much worse by the inability to talk amongst those at the scene. "Everybody's got to have one system," Berry stated.

In Minnesota that means 800 megahertz.

About 50 members of local police departments, firefighters, EMTs and city administrators attended a meeting Feb. 10 with Chisago county commissioners. (Lora Walker absent). All attending support the County Board upgrading the two-way radio system.

Connectivity with departments already on 800 megahertz-- including Anoka and Washington counties, state patrol and ambulances-- is an issue needing to be resolved.

But in Chisago County a new radio system also means improving reception and transmission across peaks and valleys and developing a system able to reach into structures.

Lakes Area Police Deputy Chief Bill Schlumbohm told the commissioners there are local buildings where a police radio is about as useful as a brick, "...you could throw it at an offender and that's about all the good it'll do you," he said.

When you push a button and call for backup on your hand-held radio or try to summon aid for someone in a life or death situation, it's not a good feeling to be left merely hoping somebody heard you.

The county's been studying several options to meet federal mandates to move all radio systems to narrowband by 2013.

Various coverage saturation and system capacities are different cost options for the radio network, ranging from a few million to several million dollars.

The sheriff had asked all radio subscribers to meet Feb. 10 with county commissioners and express preferences as far as system capabilities, and leasing equipment, buying outright plus other concerns.

Lakes Area Police Chief Kevin Stenson said he realizes "money is an issue," but he supports developing the best system possible. He said the County Board must also be equitable if assessing any user fees or up front costs to subscribers, and Lakes Area P.D. would prefer to own radios.

Shafer-Franconia Fire Chief Alan Hultman said a recent meeting of all area fire chiefs ended with the group supporting a top-end radio buildout proposal. It won't get any cheaper later, he said.

Sheriff Todd Rivard added, that if the county pursues a low-budget buildout that leaves certain territory uncovered by radio "...which areas of the county are you going to leave out?" He asked, where in the county is the Board okay with saying there won't be radio communications?

Details about each entity and how many portable and mobile radio units are needed have been gathered. The inventory will be huge, with North Branch Chief of Police Steve Forner advising that his jurisdiction needs 24 units alone. Forner also said North Branch now pays a fee to use county-owned radios and this method has worked fine for him.

County Information Services Director Jon Eckel said he estimates a $1.8 million pricetag just for up front fire departments and police radios. The sheriff's department equipment purchases are another $240,000.

Eckel said what the County Board needs to decide is the level of service the radio project will afford its subscribers and then move ahead on a master plan identifying tower sites, leases, maintenance, etc.

This can take six months.

When the plan is done then maybe bonds will be sold and grants can be sought.

Having a plan also means the county can receive its $1.2 million held by the Metro Emergency Services Board, which was appropriated by the legislature for helping to implement the radio project.

From the comm center

Speaking for the county's 9-1-1 dispatchers Jill Behnke told the County Board the project "must be done." She explained how cumbersome it is to coordinate communications while physically accessing different systems. She said one life lost because of failing to improve the network is unacceptable.

Commissioner Mike Robinson said officials in Harris and Rush City tell him they can't afford this. Does the county just send them a bill and tell them they have to contribute, he asked.

Behnke, who is also Center City Mayor, said the clock is ticking on the FCC deadline to adopt narrowband. Doing this is not a choice. Who pays for the upgrade is just a matter of whether a city council raises taxes directly or county commissioners do, she observed.

A North Branch City Council member Theresa Furman agreed, saying it boils down to who takes the political heat. All county taxpayers are going to pay for this one way or the other, she observed.

County Commissioner George McMahon (newly-elected) commented that the county received notice about the narrowband mandate years ago, but it's only just now being addressed.

Deputy Chief Schlumbohm remarked, "I know it's a big step and it's scary, but at some point we've got to know." He said he's stretching and adjusting the Lakes Area P.D. budget every which way; and he needs the radio plan soon in order to meet city budget deadlines for 2011.

Board Chair Rick Greene told attendees the county is looking into every option to reduce or spread the financial impact of this project. He also asked everyone to be diligent in seeking grants and outside aid.

The County Board will visit this decision on the radio buildout February 17 at its regular meeting.

The commissioners agreed there may be a need at that session to schedule a special Board session for finalizing this project decision Feb. 24.

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