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COUNTY CONNECTIONS: Seagull Tower Bridges Gap in Communications

Oct 25, 2019 02:07PM ● By Editor

By: Rena Rogers, Interim County Administrator/MIS Director - October 25, 2019

A few weeks ago, quietly, and without fanfare, a new ARMER (Allied Radio Matrix Emergency Response) tower went online on the eastern shore of Seagull Lake. The outcome of this project is a significant improvement in Public Safety emergency radio communication at the end of the Gunflint Trail. The solution resolved a major service gap and did so with a minimal impact on the surrounding wilderness and view shed, which is valued by residents and visitors alike.

This solution was accomplished through a common vision, collaboration across multiple government entities, public engagement, and new opportunities presented by technology.

ARMER is a robust, scalable, state-of-the-art system capable of servicing the radio communications needs of all public safety and service entities in Cook County, including: law enforcement, volunteer fire departments, first responders, search and rescue, ambulance drivers and the hospital, highway workers, utility companies, and school bus drivers. ARMER users represent City, County, State agencies, Tribal government and non-government public safety entities.

The ARMER system provides interoperability between all these partners both within Cook County and as users travel outside of the County. For example, a Cook County ambulance headed to Duluth can use their ARMER radio to communicate with Cook County Dispatch, North Shore Hospital, and the hospital in Duluth. ARMER radios use a digital rather than analog signal providing a clearer message. For these reasons it made sense to replace the VHF radios operated by each separate entity.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MNDOT) implemented and maintains the infrastructure which began operation in 2004. It is administered in coordination with the Statewide Emergency Communications Board and the Department of Public Safety. Today 86 out of 87 Minnesota Counties have fully implemented ARMER. The 1 remaining County uses ARMER in a more limited fashion. Cook County ARMER became operational in 2012.

But this is Cook County and implementing ARMER had its own unique challenges. 

First, and foremost, residents and visitors of Cook County are not fond of towers. Often when implementing ARMER in a county, MNDOT would simply build the necessary towers to ensure coverage. Cook County asked and partnered with MNDOT to use the existing tower infrastructure built for VHF, analog television and radio stations. Once ARMER was collocated on existing towers, and public safety began using the system, it became obvious that there were communication gaps, places where the radios simply did not work. The issue was the topography of Cook County which is significantly more challenging for over-the-air communication than the flat terrain of a southwestern Minnesota farming county.

The poor communication areas were identified, and MNDOT identified areas where new towers would need to be constructed. The rugged terrain of the area surrounding the last 10 miles of the Gunflint experienced significant ARMER reception problems and is one of the highest emergency response areas of the County. The public safety community needed a solution for this area. But the Ham Lake fire of 2007 had decimated this area and a 300-foot tower, which would require lighting because of its height, would certainly be the most significant visual feature on the edge of the BWCA. The tower needed to be at least 300 feet tall because the radio signal is passed from tower to tower by line of sight. The terrain made the height necessary. 

In 2015, broadband was making its way up the Gunflint Trail. The County was already utilizing dedicated fiber instead of line of sight signals for the Law Enforcement Center tower. Using fiber to carry the signal from the Gunflint Tower to a new tower could mean a significantly shorter tower. But there were many issues and questions about funding, the capability of the True North Fiber, and MNDOT project timelines. Again, MNDOT agreed to adjust their project scope and timelines to find the best solution for Cook County. Next we needed a location that would provide the best signal coverage and not require a tall tower to do it.

The Gunflint Trail Volunteer Fire Department (GTVFD) and the first responders from that area far and away were the groups most impacted by the poor ARMER service. For nearly 3 years they identified areas that might work. Finally, they identified the location by Seagull Lake where GTVFD Hall 3 is located. A 76-foot collapsible tower was already in place there. Once again, the County asked MNDOT to see if this location would work and what was the minimum height the tower needed to be. The answer came back at 80 feet, if we used broadband fiber. 

The location was leased from the US Forest Service by the GTVFD. A permit needed to be issued. So began the process of public comments, and wilderness impact reviews with the Forest Service. Michael Crotteau had just arrived as the new district ranger. He was cautious and took his role to protect impacts to the wilderness seriously. He traveled by boat to wilderness areas within the view shed of the proposed site to understand the impact. He and his staff made recommendations about tower color and style. MNDOT again agreed. 

The GTVFD paid for the installation of the fiber. The County agreed to pay the ongoing costs of leasing the dedicated fiber.

Last week, Rowan Watkins, the County’s Radio Communication Analyst received an email from Michael Valentini, the assistant fire chief of the GTVFD. Michael wrote the following:

“The day the tower was activated I drove around the area and could not find one area that did not have coverage.  We had a strong signal throughout the upper Gunflint Trail.  Thanks for all your help.  We’re very pleased!!”

Purpose. Collaboration. Public Engagement. The elements of quiet success. 

County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information from your Cook County government. Cook County – Supporting Community Through Quality Public Service

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