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New radio system is working 'flawlessly'

WILLMAR -- When the switch was flipped Tuesday morning on Kandiyohi County's new 800-megahertz radio system, emergency personnel had no idea the unique technology would be put to such quick use.

That night, fire departments from several communities were called to a barn fire and the next day multiple agencies responded to an accident that shut down traffic on state Highway 23 for several hours.

"Over the past couple days, we've had a chance to use the system and use it for what it was meant to do," said Sheriff Dan Hartog. "It worked flawlessly."

Since 2007, the county has been working on the 800-megahertz system, which is part of the state's Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response, often referred to as ARMER.

The system provides an interoperable communication network that, when fully implemented, will allow emergency personnel from different cities and counties talk to each other while responding to incidents.

Kandiyohi County is one of the few outstate counties to have implemented the system so far, but neighboring counties are expected to use the system in the near future, Hartog said.

Swift County, for example, recently decided to begin the process, while Meeker County took action this week to purchase the equipment and is expected to be on line next fall.

Stearns, Itasca and Olmstead counties are operating their systems, as well as the metro counties.

"There are a lot of counties that are moving towards it," said Hartog. In the meantime, dispatchers are able to "patch" different radio systems into the network so that different agencies can still hear and talk to each other over their radios even if not using the new system.

Having seamless communication could be crucial during a major emergency. The lack of interoperability is believed to have caused confusion among different agencies that responded to the Sept. 11 attack in New York.

While the new radio system allows different agencies to communicate with each other, the Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response also provides "talk groups" that will restrict communication to a targeted audience.

With the old system, chatter between a fire crew that may be at one location could become mixed with information being exchanged between law enforcement responding to an entirely different incident. With the new system, the communication can be directed to a specific group of responders.

"We can split up that radio traffic," said Hartog, so there's not "mass confusion."

Installing a new dispatch system and purchasing all new radios isn't cheap.

On top of a $3.5 million bond Kandiyohi County issued to purchase equipment, the municipal fire departments in the county received a grant of nearly $1 million to purchase radios, said Hartog.

Between all the different agencies, there are currently 655 new radios in the county that were purchased to work with the new system. The price is about $2,500 each for portable radios and $3,000 for mobile radios, he said.

To be ready for the switch, everyone from paid law enforcement to volunteer firefighters underwent at least four hours of training with the new radios.

Dispatchers invested even more time.

Despite the financial investment, Hartog said he's had only positive feedback from the public about the new system.

"The public understands that what we're using it for is emergency situations," he said.

"This type of system makes our job easier," said Hartog. "And it's working well."

Carolyn Lange

A reporter for 35 years, Carolyn Lange covers regional news with the West Central Tribune.

(320) 894-9750