EVELETH — Those new multi-band radios for emergency response agencies in the 700-800 megahertz band that were implemented by Jan. 1 work just fine, as shown by the Sleeve’s Bar fire in Eveleth Dec. 29, one official says.
Eveleth Fire Chief Pete Makowski said recently that the paid on-call department had done some training with the new equipment in December, and were just installing new portable radios in the fire trucks that morning when the alarm went out.
It was the first major test for the new system in the area, and “it passed by leaps and bounds,” he said.
While he had been a skeptic about the new system in the beginning, he added that he was “very, very pleased” with its performance.
“Radio can make or break a fire,” Makowski said.
The Eveleth Fire Department was able to call St. Louis County 911 dispatch in Duluth quickly to ask for more resources, and then was able to direct responding units how to deploy better before they arrived. They were able to keep in constant communication with everyone — seven fire departments and other agencies — during the Sleeve’s Bar fire on Grant Street. Makowski added, “I certainly have been very impressed by the system and how it’s operated.”
In days past, “we didn’t have that,” he explained. If Eveleth firefighters went to go help fight a blaze in another town, say in Mountain Iron, Eveleth didn’t have Mountain Iron’s fixed frequency, which made communications problematic.
The previous system that agencies operated with in northern St. Louis County was a very high frequency FM radio system that had limitations of range, interoperability and other issues, with fixed frequencies for the different departments.
When Makowski would work with different departments in the East Range Fire Coalition he was with several years ago, there were issues with fixed-channel communications also, he added.
The narrow-banding process that has been under way as a federal Homeland Security initiative for a number of years now in Minnesota is an open standards digitally trunked system called the Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response, which connects different agencies on a common frequency. Broadband radio has been condensed more to free up more waveband space as part of the process. Radios in the new system throughout the county are now set up identically. If one radio channel is silent, the system automatically switches to that one, away from a channel being used, without a user noticing the difference.
The system was first put into use in the Twin Cities in the early 2000s, and one of its first major-disaster uses was the I-35 bridge collapse Aug. 1, 2007, in Minneapolis, Makowski explained.
In the Eveleth bar fire, all units or agencies concerned with the incident were linked, with clear communications. The new system “is very versatile, and opens up all kinds of possibilities that we never had before,” Makowski noted.
While the new system has not been cheap, St. Louis County made a commitment several years ago to go ahead with the statewide system. Six fire departments — Eveleth, Virginia, Gilbert and Mountain Iron, and Fayal and McDavitt townships — received a federal grant for about $500,000 to get new radios for firefighting. The funds were used to purchase 110 portable radios, about 40 mobile radios for vehicles, and base stations.
“The system is very good,” Makowski said. “It got us additional resources” — equipment and personnel. “We got it right away,” he said.