Minnesota fire departments find fraternity in this frequency

First phase of radio equipment upgrades will boost emergency response communication in Beltrami County

This summer, the first phase of a nearly million-dollar project will enhance the communications between first responders in Minnesota, benefitting the nearly 60,000 people in Beltrami County and its surrounding service area.

The Solway Fire Department, which is based in Solway, MN, coordinates frequently with local law enforcement and EMS workers. While the fire departments within five different Beltrami County communities—Alaska Township, Bemidji, Blackduck, Kelliher and Solway—can communicate without issue, a difference of technology and equipment means that the fire departments can’t reach their important emergency service partners.

“Our local EMS, police and law enforcement all operate on an ARMER (Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response) system,” says Seth Tramm, Fire Chief of Solway Fire Department. “Their system and ours do not communicate with each other, which has become an obvious barrier to interoperability.”

Solway FD and other Beltrami County departments are doing what they can to acquire similar equipment. However, Solway FD operates on a $30,000 annual budget—which covers new gear, truck maintenance, electricity and heat bills—and to fully implement all necessary ARMER equipment is a million-dollar undertaking, collectively, for these county fire departments.

“All of the fire departments in Beltrami County have applied for government grants for the past five years,” says Tramm. “As we’ve been unsuccessful in securing these highly competitive grants, we’ve had to look at Plan B to see how we can make this transition happen.”

Plan B means tightening, squeezing, and curbing the ARMER equipment budget to a fraction of its original price tag. Now, Solway FD and its neighboring departments are looking at a baseline implementation of base stations at each fire hall, two radios installed only in primary vehicles, and six handheld radios for portable use. The cost of this is a much more chewable chunk at $70,000.

Safe Community First Responder Program

Since its launch, Enbridge's Safe Community program has invested more than US$16.6 million (more than C$21.5 million) in first responder organizations near our pipelines and facilities.

Safety is the foundation of everything we do at Enbridge. Since its inception in 2002, our Safe Community program has invested $12.5 million in North American first response organizations.

This year, a $30,000 Safe Community grant from Enbridge has helped these Beltrami County fire departments get closer to their first-phase ARMER goal. In previous years, Enbridge funding has helped with training expenses and the replacement of a well—“Enbridge has been a huge benefit to our department and our community,” says Tramm.

While the department chips away at ARMER purchases, there are always new issues demanding attention—and cash.

“When you are talking about a new fire truck at more than a quarter of a million dollars, or new turnout gear at $64,000 for all of our firefighters, the smaller budgets like ours don’t go too far,” says Tramm.

Solway’s 20 firefighters are all volunteers—a rarity in the state, as many volunteer departments receive some type of stipend for their time and service.

“Our guys and leadership team really have their heart in this, and while it’s about camaraderie and being part of a group, it’s really about serving the community.”