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Emergency communication options weighed by county


Fri, Aug 21st, 2009
Posted in Government

The Fillmore County Board held a special meeting on August 18 to review the pros and cons of three potential future emergency communication systems. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an independent US government agency responsible to congress, is mandating that all public communication systems must be narrowbanded by January 1, 2013.

Scott Wiggins, director of Emergency Communications Networks, Minnesota Department of Public Safety, gave a history of the state's Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response (ARMER) plan and its progress over the past eight years. ARMER is Minnesota's long term interoperable communications planning. In 2004, a 21-member board was set up with seven state, seven local metro, and seven greater Minnesota officials. Sixty-two million has been set aside statewide for an 800 megahertz (MHz) system, which would meet the FCC requirements. Nearly one million dollars is set aside specifically for Fillmore County.

In 2007, a 30 cent increase in the 911 fee was imposed to build a fund for the ARMER and 911 system. Revenue bonds in the amount of $186 million were authorized. The state is paying for the backbone infrastructure of the system, including operation and maintenance costs.

In order to achieve the state's vision of a statewide 800 MHz system, many towers have already been built and many more are in the process of being built with state funds. Fillmore County will have four towers and will be able to utilize near towers in surrounding counties. Wiggins noted the ARMER plan at this point in time is for voice, but it is proposed to one day transmit data. The plan is expected to achieve at least 95 percent statewide coverage. The ultimate goal is interoperability.

Wiggins maintained the need to replace current communication systems was expressed in the 911 Commission Report, which detailed the inability of emergency personnel to communicate caused the loss of about 300 firefighters in New York City. The state isn't mandating the use of the 800 MHz system. There are two other alternatives which could comply with the FCC mandate for narrow banding. Narrow banding, in simple terms, allows for more channels. The FCC in its first phase has mandated 12.5 kHz channels by 2013. This is just an interim step. This was made clear in a memorandum adopted by the FCC in 2008 stating "that 12.5 kHz technology is a transitional step in the eventual migration to 6.25 technology." The 6.25 would probably not be available in analog, only digital. In the future, originally planned for as early as 2018, the FCC will probably require a further narrowing of the spectrum to 6.25 kHz channels. This potential requirement in the not too distant future must be considered in the county's choice among the three alternatives.

Fillmore County Sheriff Daryl Jensen, on a video interview for this newspaper, which can be seen at fillmorecountyjournal.com, spoke of the need to look at the alternatives with a long range perspective, ten years or more into the future. He thinks it should be a business decision, choosing the alternative which is ultimately best for the taxpaying public and for public safety. Jensen notes the difficulty of making this decision in the economic environment now faced by local governments.

The Alternatives

Chuck Knot, Federal Engineering, was hired to provide assessments for 47 individual counties in Minnesota. He wasn't expressing a preference but giving an overview designed to help the county make an informed choice to best serve Fillmore County's needs for public safety. Twenty-seven agencies are involved in the study ranging from the county sheriff, highway department to city police, fire, and ambulance departments.

The three alternatives include: analog conventional narrowband, digital conventional VHF, and digital trunked 700/800 MHz-ARMER. All of the alternatives will have significant costs for the county and city governments in that local governments will need to change their infrastructure and buy new equipment, including pagers and radios. There will be technology available to patch between the VHF and 800 MHz systems.

Analog narrowband is the least expensive and would be the minimum necessary to comply with the 2013 mandate. However, it will provide a little less coverage and poorer audio quality. The greatest drawback is the fact that it is analog and would not likely meet the expected future mandate from the FCC for 6.25 kHz.

The second alternative is digital VHF and would meet the 6.25 kHz. It has several other pluses including the ability to be compatible with any existing analog VHF. However, it is the most expensive of the three alternatives and has limited interoperability with the 800 MHz system. The consensus from the county board and local emergency units is to eliminate this option.

The third alternative is the ARMER digital 700/800 MHz which is less expensive than the digital VHF, but considerably more expensive than analog narrowband. The state grants mentioned earlier of nearly one million dollars are available for the digital 700/800 MHz alternative. It has good coverage, interoperability and capacity, and can add almost infinite users. It would require user training and require the purchase of new console systems.

Knot advised the board to take time and consider which alternative is the best value for the county. They will need to look at what best serves the county now and ten years from now. Fillmore County, like counties all over the country, will need to decide how to comply. The FCC is prohibiting any new application for wide band licenses as of January 1, 2011. Existing licenses for wide band will be void on January 1, 2013. Chairman Chuck Amunrud added the board needs to make a formal decision before the end of this year. He wants recommendations from area emergency groups by the end of October before the board makes the decision.

Cost

The analog or first alternative is estimated to cost the first year about $530,000 and over a ten year period about $1,402,000. The 700/800 MHz ARMER system is estimated to cost $1,402,000 in the first year and over a ten year period about $3,808,000. The actual cost for the 700/800 ARMER system to the county could be offset in part by FEMA grants.

Wiggins claimed the state was not trying to force counties to choose the ARMER system but only wanted to assist in filling the gap. The state provides no grant dollars for other methods. Commissioner Randy Dahl asked how other counties were deciding to cover the cost. Wiggins said the majority of counties have decided to help their emergency departments purchase the necessary radios. He noted that bonding for public safety systems is exempt from state-imposed levy limits.

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