New communication equipment will better link county firefighters

WILLMAR -- If a team of Willmar firefighters were inside the West Central Tribune today responding to an emergency, they would not be able communicate directly with firefighters standing right outside the door.

WILLMAR -- If a team of Willmar firefighters were inside the West Central Tribune today responding to an emergency, they would not be able communicate directly with firefighters standing right outside the door.

Instead, the firefighters on the inside would have to call the county dispatch center with their questions or request for assistance and the dispatch center would relay that information to the firefighters on the outside. The firefighters on the outside would then respond to the dispatch center who would then relay that information back to the firefighters on the inside.

That delay in communication, or the potential for miscommunication, could be costly one day.

"Let's talk about lives and saving lives," said Willmar Fire Chief Marv Calvin. "That's where the rubber hits the road."

That road to better communication will get a lot better for all firefighters in Kandiyohi County thanks to a $988,345 federal Homeland Security grant that will be used to purchase nearly 280 new radios that will be distributed to all 12 fire departments in the county.


The Kandiyohi County Fire Chiefs Association was informed last month that it had received the competitive grant. The Willmar Fire Department will receive 57 radios, said Calvin. The rest will be distributed to the other 11 fire departments based on the number of their firefighters.

The portable 800-megahertz radios will allow the firefighters from the different departments in different towns to talk directly to each other.

The communication will also reach firefighters in Stearns County -- including the fire departments in Belgrade, Brooten and Paynesville -- where the 800-MHz system is also in place.

"It should greatly increase the interoperability and communications on the fire scene," said Sig Holme, New London fire chief.

His brother, Mike Holme, who is the fire chief in Spicer just four miles down the road, said the 800-MHz radios are a "much needed system" that makes the community "a lot safer."

Emergency personnel agree that being able to communicate with multiple fire departments during major events when mutual aid is used will be a good thing.

The 800-MHz system has been widely credited for a seamless emergency response to the I-35W bridge collapse this year in Minneapolis.

By contrast, the lack of a common communication system was blamed for lost lives in the 9/11 attack in New York.


Stearns County and St. Cloud have been using the 800-MHz radios for more than three years, linking their public safety agencies and public works departments on a common radio communications channel.

"It has greatly improved our communication," said Micah Myers, who works for the city of St. Cloud and is the chairman of the regional advisory committee that reports to the Central Minnesota Regional Radio Board. The board is tasked with overseeing improvements to public safety communication.

Myers recalled the chaos nearly 12 years ago when officers from multiple agencies were searching for the men who shot and killed St. Joseph police officer Brian Klinefelter. Officers on one side of a house that was being surrounded couldn't talk to the officers on the other side of the house because they used different radios and frequencies, said Myers.

The incident commander had "one radio to each ear and one between his legs" as he tried to coordinate the search, said Myers.

Now, he said, all the agencies in Stearns County can communicate "clear as a bell" with each other. Having neighboring fire departments in Kandiyohi County connected will make the region even better linked, he said.

This fall when Stearns County assisted with a drowning incident on Eagle Lake, communication was cumbersome because Kandiyohi County does not yet have the 800-MHz radios. Instead of communicating on the same channel, the different departments had to swap radios.

While the grant to the Kandiyohi County Fire Chiefs Association will allow the 12 different fire departments to communicate, other agencies in the county, like the sheriff, police or first responders, won't be included in the 800-MHz system.

But that could happen in the near future.


Kandiyohi County, like most counties in the state, is weighing options for changing its radio communication systems by 2013 because the Federal Communications Commission is rebanding some radio frequencies.

One option is for agencies to use a narrow-band radio. The other main option is to use the 800-MHz system.

Efforts are under way to build an 800-MHz statewide public safety radio and communication system called Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response, commonly called ARMER.

The state will build the "backbone" of the system, including radio towers, and counties will have the option to purchase equipment to use the frequency, said Kandiyohi County Sheriff Dan Hartog, who has been working on the ARMER project for more than two years.

While the 800-MHz system would not make a huge difference in the day-to-day operations of law enforcement and emergency personnel, Hartog said it would be critical during a major incident, such as a tornado, pandemic illness or fire, when it's critical for agencies to communicate and quickly to get appropriate manpower on the scene.

"You don't have time to stand there and hold three different radios," Hartog said.

It won't be inexpensive for a county to have all of its emergency and public agencies on the system. For Kandiyohi County the cost is in the ballpark of $3 million.

But when quick communication can mean the difference between life and death, it's difficult to measure cost. "I'm not willing to put the cost on somebody's life," said Myers.


Without the federal grant, it would have been nearly impossible for the Kandiyohi County fire departments to purchase the radios and enhanced communication system, said Sig Holme.

The county will provide a 10 percent match to the grant. County Administrator Larry Kleindl said the funds will come from the capital equipment fund and budget reserves.

"Any time you can get federal dollars and pull in a match of 10 percent, it's very beneficial to the taxpayers," said Kleindl.

Hartog said he intends to present information about the 800-MHz ARMER system to the County Board of Commissioners early in 2008. That information should help them make a decision on whether or not to connect all the agencies in the county with the ARMER system.

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