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County begins switch to new emergency communications systems

Graphic courtesy Minnesota Department of Transportation,

By Tom Larson

Sun Tribune

Stevens County must upgrade the technology used by law enforcement over the next two years and the price tag isn't small.

But thanks to aggressively pursuing grants and joining forces with other counties, revamping the county's radio and dispatch systems might be relatively inexpensive.

Sheriff Randy Willis explained the capital outlays facing the county for the ARMER, the CAD/RMS and the Next Generation 911 systems during the county's Board of Commissioners meeting Tuesday.

The systems -- Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response, Computer-Aided Dispatch/Records Management System, and the Next Generation 911 -- are all linked in the State of Minnesota's move to the all-digital, 800 megahertz trunk communications system for emergency response.

ARMER system is used by the Minnesota Department of Transportation, the State Patrol, the Department of Natural Resources for voice and data communications. The backbone is shared with local governments and other emergency response organizations so that all emergency responders can communicate with each other.

Metropolitan and some surrounding counties have switched to the 800MHz systems, and greater Minnesota counties are expected to convert their systems in the next few years.

The systems will give law enforcement, fire, and emergency personnel more reliable and faster interagency communications tools to respond when needed.

The county's switch to ARMER was estimated to cost about $1.4 million, but Willis said that through grants the county's outlay has been reduced to about $200,000 to $300,000. If the county receives other grants that are pending, the cost could be reduced further. The county expects to learn if it will receive a $375,000 grant in October.

Willis received board approval to purchase a Motorola NCC 7500 dispatch console for about $189,000. Willis said he has grant money available to pay for about $175,000 of that total. Because of the manufacturing delays up to six or seven months on console orders, Willis said the purchase had to be made soon.

A records logging component that will be used with the dispatch console was not ordered on Tuesday, and amounts to the major expense in the system. County officials will seek price quotes and examine compatibility issues. Unlike the console, the logging component can be purchased and installed relatively quickly, Willis said.

The logging system also has enough capacity that the county could contract with surrounding counties for services to recoup some of the expenses. The time needed to build the console also will give the county time to determine if the October grant is approved, and if sharing with other counties is feasible, he said.

"That might mitigate that cost even further," Willis said. "But, bottom line, we need to pull the trigger on ordering the dispatch console, and we need to do it soon."

If the grant money and other funding isn't obtained, the "worst-case scenario" is the county paying about $300,000 for a system estimated to cost $1.4 million, Willis said.

"I'd like to go into this ARMER system with no cost, and that's a real possibility," Willis said.


The CAD/RMS system is estimated to cost about $220,000, thanks to cost savings through a consortium that includes 10 counties and the City of St. Cloud and operating under a joint powers agreement through the Regional Radio Board. Of the 10 counties, three -- Douglas, Wadena and Otter Tail -- have implemented the system. If Stevens County went ahead alone, the system would cost almost $500,000, Willis said.

The current system is about 30 years old and is breaking down regularly.

The board approved Willis' request to verbally commit to the consortium plan, but no money was allocated to it.

Next Generation 911

The Next Generation 911 system is about 18 months to two years from implementation and equipment to operate the system is expected to cost about $200,000, an expense the county will incur in 2012, Willis said.

Once NG911 is ready, the county will need "customer premise equipment" to be fully operational. The CPE also can be shared among counties, and Stevens County currently is discussing NG911 options with Pope, Grant and Traverse counties, Willis said.

Combining the 16 counties in the NG911 consortium with reimbursements from the state for approved 911 systems, "we should pretty much break even on this," Willis said.

Board member and former county sheriff Larry Sayre said that, like the CAD system, the current 911 system is old and in need of replacement, and he and other commissioners complimented law enforcement and other county and city agencies for their diligence and success in securing the amount of grant funding.

Interim County Coordinator Brian Giese said that other counties making the same transition are facing the prospect of spending $500,000 to $1.5 million to pay for their systems.

"ARMER didn't cause CAD or Next Generation 911," Sayre said. "These are three separate things we knew were coming down the pike for some time."