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Armed to the necessary level: County remains one of few not on ARMER

BEMIDJI — Seventy-one of Minnesota’s 87 counties have converted to the Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response system. Beltrami County has not.

Gary Therkelsen of G.J. Therkelsen and Associates informed Beltrami Commissioners of the benefits -- and the monetary cost -- to the county should Beltrami fully switch to the system, known as ARMER.

Full conversion comes with a $5.6 million price tag.

ARMER is a radio system that will enable all law enforcement, fire and emergency personnel on federal, state, county and local levels to communicate with each other in ways they were unable to in the past.

“We’ve successfully narrowbanded VHF in our county. It seems to be working pretty well,” said Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp.

As of April, Beltrami County was categorized as “planning to migrate” along with eight other counties: Kittson, Polk, Pennington, Clearwater, Becker, Koochiching in the northwest and Waseca and Mower in the southeast portions of the state. The remaining seven counties, also in northwest Minnesota remain “narrowband capable,” according to officials.

Neighboring Hubbard, Cass and Itasca counties have gone live with ARMER. Therkelsen said ARMER started in the metro system and spread after it went statewide with the Department of Transportation.

Terkelsen said Beltrami County can benefit from having had other counties experience the switch before they make a decision to go forward.

“For a lot of reasons, it became an attractive option for counties and cities to consider to meet their future radio needs,” Therkelsen said. “One of the greatest benefits of ARMER is interoperability. It gets everybody on the same platform so any of the eligible users can communicate pretty effectively throughout the state.”

VHF is traditionally adequate for covering a large area with fewer infrastructures or towers. Since the ARMER system operates on 800-megahertz, it requires more towers, Terkelsen explained. There are already two ARMER sites located in Bemidji, but in outlying areas, more towers would need to be erected at a cost to the county.

Traditional analog radio systems operate in the area of 150-kilohertz. To use the 800-mhz ARMER system, previously used radio equipment usually needs to be replaced, another cost to the county.

“You’ve got a huge county here,” Terkelsen said. “This ARMER system uses a completely different area of the radio spectrum than what you’re using today. Today, you’re all VHF.”

Topography is an obstacle for Beltrami County. Many other counties in Minnesota are more flat and able to bounce off one another’s radio towers. Therkelsen said in forested areas, pine trees are worse than leafy trees on the 800-mhz bandwidth.

Along with topography, funding is a challenge for Beltrami County. Terkelsen said he is skeptical that additional state or federal funds will become available to help offset the cost to the county.

Beltrami County Sheriff Phil Hodapp said one of the reasons Therkelsen was asked to do the study, which was paid for by grant dollars, was state compliance.

“In order for us to participate with all the agencies and with the state, we had to submit a participation plan,” Hodapp said. “We just have to know what it would cost us if we were to migrate to ARMER.”

Hodapp said it is important to note that the county decided several years ago not to fully migrate to ARMER because the state said the system wouldn’t be moving to outstate Minnesota.

“We were just going to narrowband our VHF as was required by the FCC for 2012 and we did that,” Hodapp said.

Beltrami County invested money into the narrowband system and has continued on that course. If federal or state funding becomes available, the county may revisit the migration plan.

“We’re getting knowledge and information here. We’re not proposing to move our entire system to ARMER,” Hodapp said. “We have interoperability with ARMER. We’re not asking for $5.6 million.”

Therkelsen’s presentation was funded by a $30,000 grant from the Commissioner of Public Safety, Emergency Communications Networks Division of the State of Minnesota. Documents Therkelsen provided are necessary for Beltrami County to be compliant with future planning needs for radio coverage in Beltrami County.

Crystal Dey
Crystal Dey covers crime, courts, tribal relations and social issues for The Bemidji Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Originally from Minnesota’s Iron Range, Dey has worked for the Echo Press in Alexandria, Minnesota, The Forum in Fargo, North Dakota, The Tampa Tribune in Tampa, Florida, the Hartford Courant in Hartford and West Hartford News in West Hartford, Connecticut. Dey studied Mass Communications at Minnesota State University Moorhead with an emphasis in Online Journalism. Follow Crystal Dey on Twitter @Crystal_Dey.
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