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Meeting sheds light on benefits of common radio link

WILLMAR -- To hear Tom Justin talk, the best thing that ever happened to him as an officer with the St. Cloud Police Department was the day he received a new 800-megahertz radio.

WILLMAR -- To hear Tom Justin talk, the best thing that ever happened to him as an officer with the St. Cloud Police Department was the day he received a new 800-megahertz radio.

That ra-dio was special be-cause it was part of the new Allied Ra-dio Matrix for Emergency Re-sponse system, which allows emergency, law enforcement and public works personnel to communicate with each other over a common radio network.

"I'm passionate about the system. I believe it'll save lives," said Justin during an informational meeting Wednesday in Willmar. The meeting included government representatives from Willmar, Kandiyohi County and Big Stone County.

The meeting was designed to present information about the complicated system to local officials, who will eventually have to take action on whether or not to join the network, said Kandiyohi County Sheriff Dan Hartog. Hartog.

The sheriff has been involved with regional committees that have been studying the system.

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St. Cloud and Stearns County officials agreed to participate in the network three years ago and invested in new equipment and radio tower infrastructure.

With the state's decision to expand the 800-MHz Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response network throughout Minnesota to create a statewide communication network, other counties and cities are also faced with the decision of whether or not to upgrade their own technology that would allow easy communication between local entities, as well as entities from different counties.

The cost to do that in Kandiyohi County is $3.8 million, according to Ray Freeman, from Geo Com, the consulting company that did the study.

The estimate includes erecting a third radio tower in the southern part of the county to provide radio coverage for all emergency and law enforcement agencies in every corner of the county.

"I know the price tag is scary," said Bill Mund, St. Cloud Fire Department fire chief. "It's a business decision for all of these counties."

For St. Cloud and Stearns County, Mund said the investment was well worth it. Mund praised the system for providing "seamless communication" between emergency and law enforcement entities, as well as the public works department and local hospitals and colleges in Stearns County and St. Cloud.

During big emergencies, such as fires, explosions or evacuations, it's crucial that people from different agencies are able to communicate with each other instantly and clearly, he said.

The success of the system was shown during the collapse of the I-35W bridge because different emergency agencies were able to easily communicate with each other, said Micah Myers, the information technology coordinator for St. Cloud. "It worked awesome," he said.

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Without that ability, he said, it can be difficult for emergency crews to respond to crisis situations.

In recalling the 1998 natural gas explosion in downtown St. Cloud, Mund said "runners" were used to carry messages from the command post to emergency personnel at the front lines because the emergency workers had different radio systems.

With their old radio system, communication was often lost when emergency personnel went inside buildings to respond to emergencies. That made it dangerous if a firefighter became lost or injured inside a structure during a fire, for example.

After doing numerous "can you hear me now tests" with the new system, Mund said radio communication is clearly maintained even in the underground tunnels of municipal buildings.

Justin said the new system gives emergency agencies the "opportunity to become more effective and efficient."

Some emergency and law enforcement personnel were initially resistant to the new radios, Mund said. But after they learned how they worked, "you won't get them out of their hands."

Justin said now that they have seen how well it works inside their own county, they are eager for neighboring counties to switch to the 800-MHz system so that they can also be linked through the state's Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response network.

"You have a monumental decision in front of you," Meyers said.

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Even if Kandiyohi County does not participate in the network, it will have to meet the 2010 deadline put in place by the Federal Communications Commission to use only narrow-band frequencies, instead of wide-band frequencies. That change is estimated to cost Kandiyohi County $900,000.

Carolyn Lange is a features writer at the West Central Tribune. She can be reached at clange@wctrib.com or 320-894-9750
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