North Dakota public safety and emergency services are getting a long overdue radio upgrade as part of a new program called SIRN20/20. SIRN stands for Statewide Interoperable Radio Network. “Interoperable” means all the agencies involved (law enforcement, firefighters, EMS, emergency management, the public utilities, transportation, and others) will be able to communicate with each other, on demand, and in real-time. It is a joint effort by state, county, and municipal public safety agencies to build and maintain a statewide interoperable radio communication system for first responders and the public safety community.
“Since 2011 there has been a statewide grassroots effort between local and state law enforcement, fire, EMS, and many other agencies to ask the state to fund good radio coverage for their organizations,” said Cavalier County Emergency Management Coordinator Karen Kempert. “At the time there were only 40 radio towers statewide and local units had to supplement that to get better coverage.”
The governor established the Statewide Interoperability Executive Committee (SIEC) in 2012, and the Legislature established the committee as a permanent body in 2013. Under the SIEC, studies were conducted, recommendations were made, and in 2017, the SIRN20/20 program was initiated. Kempert is on the SIEC and many SIRN project workgroups as a rural representative because she is passionate that rurals are taken into consideration.
“We are lucky we have Karen here,” said Cavalier County Sheriff Greg Fetsch. “She has taken a leading role in the state and is the reason Langdon has been involved since the beginning of this project.”
The existing radio system operates on Very High Frequency (VHF) and is comprised of fragmented statewide, regional and local two-way voice and paging systems with varying levels of performance and sophistication.
“The new infrastructure will get us way better radio coverage than we’ve had before,” said Kempert. “It will operate on the 800 MHz frequency which has much better clarity and less static interference.”
The SIRN20/20 program is currently in Phase One of the deployment. Some of the 911 dispatch centers, called Public Safety Answering Points (PSAPs), are getting new consoles. Langdon is now installing and testing their new PSAP console to make sure it communicates smoothly with the existing system of pagers, radios, and sirens. These consoles will be able to work on both the old VHF radio system and the new 800 MHz radio system. Public works, emergency services, and other entities will have access to this new infrastructure through new handheld and vehicle radio equipment if they choose.
“The PSAP portion is paid wholly by local PSAPs and the citizens they support. Funding was set aside from our 911 fee of $1.50 that is on landline and wireless phones,” said Kempert. “The state legislature also authorized a $1500.00 reimbursement per radio that is used by emergency services. Local budgets will have to pay the difference between the $1500.00 and cost of the radios, installation and programming.”
SIRN20/20 will take several years to fully deploy. Upon completion, there will be 139 radio towers, 21 retrofitted PSAPs, and over 20,000 radios statewide, all able to communicate with each other. This will include the addition of access to a data network being built called FirstNet, a nationwide high-speed wireless broadband network dedicated for first responders and authorized by Congress in the aftermath of 9/11.
“Once fully rolled out, it will make a world of difference,” said Fetsch. “We will be able to talk to anyone in the state. We won’t cut in over other communications. When we are on-site at an accident, everybody will be able to talk to everybody else. “