800 Mhz switch comes todayAfter years of planning and many delays, Goodhue County's public safety entities will switch to a new radio system Monday.
By: Danielle Killey, The Republican Eagle
After years of planning and many delays, Goodhue County's public safety entities will switch to a new radio system Monday.
The 800 megahertz system will replace a 35-year-old VHF system, offering more options for communicating and better reception, the Sheriff's Office said.
"It will be connectivity like we've never had before," Chief Deputy Lyle Lorenson said.
Exploring new radio options started about eight years ago, Sheriff Scott McNurlin said. The current system has multiple dead zones and only two channels that had to be shared by the sheriff's department and local police departments.
"Before, we were all trying to compete for radio time," McNurlin said. "It was sometimes a disaster, to be honest."
Additionally, the Federal Communication Commission issued new regulations on public safety radios that had to be met by 2013.
McNurlin said the project was estimated to cost about $10 million. But the state launched a project to improve public safety radio and already was planning to build five towers in the county, so the entities partnered and cut the price to $5.2 million.
It was still a high price tag, McNurlin said. But the county set aside more than $2 million for the project and the rest was made up in grants.
The biggest benefit of the new system is the addition of more veins of communication called "talk groups."
"They're different places we can go to communicate," McNurlin said.
The 800 Mhz system also has better reception and clearer sound, he said.
The project saw many delays across the board, McNurlin said. The system required licenses and clearances from the FCC, which he said took longer than he expected, along with delays with materials and the construction of the towers.
While the department will still meet the FCC's 2013 deadline, the plan was to have the 800 Mhz system up and running by this time last year.
"Eventually I just quit trying to give tentative dates because it seemed like we never met them," McNurlin said. "It was very much a frustration for me."
But he said the project was well worth the effort.
"We'll still have a system Goodhue County wouldn't have been able to afford on its own, and it's going to be far better than the one we currently have," he said.
There will be a total of 10 towers throughout the county, five of which are owned by the state. A new tower will be installed on Sand Hill, likely in the fall, Lorenson said, improving reception in downtown Red Wing.
Adapting to the new system
The final switchover Monday will be as simple as turning on the new system, McNurlin said. Authorities have been using the system in limited capacities since last fall, he added.
"It should be a pretty smooth transition," Lorenson said.
The old system will still be used for paging and can be a fallback should anything go wrong with the 800 Mhz system, Lorenson said.
McNurlin said the new devices are more like miniature computers than radios.
"In the old world there was a handful of channels you could turn to and that would be it," he said. "Now it's a little more complicated."
Lorenson said the systems are easy for young officers to learn because the radios are simpler than many new cell phones. But others needed more time.
Also, dispatchers coordinate the communications, which will be a bit more complicated with the different talk groups going on simultaneously.
"It will mean an adjustment in the field and an adjustment for dispatchers," McNurlin said.
But the department has been training its employees in the new system and will continue to do so.
While the office has been planning for the project for years, the capabilities for the new system are still open, McNurlin said.
"We don't really know how we'll use all the technology until we use it," McNurlin said. "Nothing's written in stone, but we'll solidify it in the future."