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New radio system moves forward

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WORTHINGTON -- During a special meeting of the Nobles County Board Monday afternoon, commissioners adopted a resolution to complete a participation plan -- the next step in the process toward implementing a new radio system.

The action was taken in response to the Federal Communication Commission's requirement that agencies nationwide switch to a narrow band communications system by 2013.

In Minnesota, the metro area converted to the ARMER (Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response) system several years ago. Its first major disaster under the system was the I-35 bridge collapse, during which the communications system worked "almost flawlessly," according to Nobles County Sheriff Kent Wilkening.

The statewide conversion was originally slated to be completed in six stages, with the southwest corner of the state to make the switch toward the end of the process. In 2007, however, Gov. Tim Pawlenty decided to lump phases four through six together, resulting in nearly the entire western half of the state working toward the conversion at the same time.

The county will receive $30,000 from the state Homeland Security and Emergency Management division to pay for the participation plan, according to Nobles County Emergency Management Director Dan Anderson. In addition, both the county and City of Worthington have received a combined $90,000 in Public Safety Interoperable Communications grant money to purchase mobile and portable radios to operate on the new system.

Much more funding is needed, however, to implement the ARMER system. Commissioner Diane Thier said the system could cost in the neighborhood of $2 million.

With the county's decision to move forward with the participation plan, Wilkening said they can now begin the process of applying for additional grants.

"Right now, there's a number of counties that have their hands in the cookie jar," Wilkening said. "I want to get our hands in that cookie jar while the money's still there."

At this time, the county's radio communications system operates on a 140 to 170 megahertz VHF band. That compares the ARMER system that utilizes an 800 megahertz bandwidth.

"From what I've seen the state ARMER system gives us very good coverage in the county," said Wilkening, adding that the new system will allow multiple agencies to communicate with each other during a response.

"The whole thing is about interoperability -- to be able to communicate with everybody," he said. "The best example was the fire at (Minnesota Soybean Processors in Brewster). Twenty different agencies responded to that fire and communications were somewhat difficult.

"With all those agencies on the ARMER system, it makes communications with those agencies so much easier."

In this area, Murray and Cottonwood counties have already approved the conversion to the ARMER system, while Jackson County commissioners are expected to vote on the issue today. In Jackson County, all of the affected agencies support the switch to ARMER.

"The big question is how do we pay for this?" asked Thier. "How do we go to our constituents now and explain this could be a $2 million cost?

"It just makes me a little upset that they (the FCC) don't send the money along with the mandate," she added.

"I have some of the same concerns about how we're going to fund this thing," said Commissioner Marv Zylstra. "I still have a lot of questions."

Once the participation plan is complete -- Wilkening hopes it will be done by the end of March or early April -- the county will have a better idea on the exact cost of the system.

Meanwhile, commissioners discussed Monday a plan to host public meetings to educate the public about the switch to the new communications system, what it can do and how the costs will be split between the county, municipalities and townships.

Wilkening said it is taking anywhere from 22- to 24 months from the time a county decides to switch to ARMER to when the new radio system is operating.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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