By Larry Kline/Havre Daily Newsemail@example.com
Law enforcement agencies across northern Montana will soon be able to communicate with ease, allowing them to better coordinate their activities during areawide emergencies.
The Northern Tier Interoperatibility Project is a consortium that includes 12 counties and four Indian nations near the Canadian border.
"It's a huge project," said Scott Bradford, a coordinator with the state Public Safety Services Bureau, which is providing consultation and technical assistance for the effort. "Right now there are a lot of eyes on it at the state and federal level. I don't know of another project like this across the United States border."
The project, when completed, will allow federal, state and local law enforcement officers to talk to one another during events that cross county or reservation lines.
Such events could include "any number of things," said Hill County Undersheriff Don Brostrom, who serves as the county's representative on the project. Large wildfires, hazardous material spills and search-and-rescue operations for lost hunters are just a few examples.
"If you have an event, you need a way to go across jurisdictional boundaries," Brostrom said. "When we talk on a radio now, we all have our own individual frequencies" and must switch from one to another.
When the project is complete, the local agencies will be able to switch from talking within their department to communicating with departments across the area, Brostrom said.
"It's very helpful, whether you have a homeland security issue or whether you're dealing with day-to-day law enforcemnt issues," Bradford said. "Normally, local agencies have difficulties speaking with their state and federal counterparts. The upgrade of this system will improve that."
The system is in the planning stages, Brostrom said. As of October, all of the counties and tribes had signed memorandums of understanding to join the project, which will cost about $14 million to complete. A large chunk, $5.7 million, came from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
Project members have begun the process of hammering out the standards that will dictate how well the system performs. The project's board has enlisted the help of Motorola, which will evaluate what improvements need to be made to the current systems to bring it up to those standards.
The board must also decide if the project will upgrade vehicle radios or hand-held units, or both. After the group has outlined the "laundry list" of specifications it wants, Brostrom said, it can decide how to go about setting up the system.
The project will move the agencies' radio systems from a wide bandwidth to a narrow bandwidth and switch communications from analog to digital.
"Analog radio transmits the actual sound wave of a person's voice," Brostrom said. "A digital (radio) converts that sound wave into a digital bit stream of zeroes and ones. There are a lot of benefits to it. It's clearer, it's faster." The whole project will be "backwards compatible," Brostrom said, which will enable departments to continue using their old equipment with the new system until all of the radios are eventually replaced.
"As we move forward, nobody's going to be left behind with old equipment," he said.
The Lewis and Clark County project, a similar effort, is scheduled to go online in early February. One difference between it and the Northern Tier project is that it is a lot bigger in scope and sought to place a radio in the hands of everyone who could use one, whether it be an emergency medical technician or a snowplow driver.
"I guess that's my plan, too, to try and do that," Brostrom said. "The big thing is to get the backbone of the system up and running."
The intitial Northern Tier project focuses on law enforcement agencies. After the first phase is completed, Brostrom said, he would like to see it expand to include fire departments, public health departments, search-and-rescue teams and others. As the agencies replace their old radios with new units, the used items will be handed down to other departments to increase communication between agencies throughout the area.