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Cass County communications now totally digital

WALKER – Cass County law enforcement officers and dispatchers live in a totally digital world today, partly made possible by switching to the new federally-mandated ARMER 800 Mhz radio system.

The county began using the new system earlier this month.

Cass County commissioners toured the new dispatch center created inside the existing law enforcement center Tuesday and looked at new equipment officers are using in their squad cars and trucks.

“I appreciate the support the county board has had to allow us to move into the new dispatch center,” Sheriff Tom Burch said, adding, “It will help make our communities safer.”

Two years ago, the estimate to convert the radio system was $4,800,000 with an estimated county cost of $3,951,000 after state and federal grants, according to Administrator Robert Yochum.

Now with the system operational and nearly paid for, Yochum said bulk purchasing and other cost saving measures have brought the total bill down to $4,524,000, with the county share after grants running $3,660,200.

Cass is still lobbying the Legislature for rural counties to get the same exemption metro counties did for sales tax on the 800 Mhz system. Yochum said that would mean a $250,000 sales tax refund for Cass if enacted.

The radio upgrade began with Minnesota Department of Transportation studying the state to determine where more communications towers were needed to get full emergency radio communication throughout the state. MnDOT then built the towers.

Each county paid for radio equipment to put on the towers to eliminate dead spots in their radio communications system.

This meant Cass went from using two mobile radio towers to seven. Sheriff Burch says he now has 95 to 98 percent coverage in the county.

The upgrade also paid for 450 to 500 new mobile radios for 30 responding agencies in the county, including sheriff’s deputies, city police, fire fighters, emergency medical responders, sheriff’s posse, dive team and Cass’s highway department, according to Yochum.

Each agency will be responsible for replacement costs after the expected 10 year or more lifespan of these new mobile radios and pagers, Burch said.

The upgrade paid for GPS units to be placed in each squad vehicle, so the dispatch center can track their location and send the closest car to each call.

The new dispatch center in a former conference room provides a larger, brighter space with two regularly manned four-screen stations and a third available for busy times. It also has a large screen on one wall giving a blow-up of the county map screen for tracking squad cars and 911 calls.

Also on that wall is a large screen giving regular weather updates.

One desktop screen in front off dispatchers shows the map, enabling the dispatcher to send the closest car to a call, which could even involve sending a Cass car to a neighboring county if the other county’s squads are farther from the call.

The second touch screen replaces telephones and radios. The third screen provides data on current and pending ICR calls, Burch said. The fourth screen will be available for future uses.

Depending on the program accessed, the data screen can show criminal history of a suspect, civil and criminal complaints, photos of a suspect, statements taken from a suspect, the person’s driver license and registration or show probation violations.

Another program shows information on each person Cass has in jail that day, including a list of charges and a photo.

When an officer downloads data from a camera or digital audio device used to take statements on the scene of a crime to the squad car laptop, a dispatcher or officer at a work station in the law enforcement center can immediately access that photo or information. Officers in other squad vehicles also can access the new information.

An officer in a squad car can do a license check right from the car today, complete with a picture of the driver license with photo. An officer can access a state system to see what types of vehicles have been used in recent burglaries.

Officers write most of their reports from their squad laptops, so seldom have to go into the law enforcement center except for training or to deliver a prisoner to jail. This makes them available to respond to calls more quickly and keeps them on the street more of each shift, Burch said.

Dispatchers also can go to a secure website available to law enforcement to access videos recorded on street cameras in cities or in schools in the county, Burch said.

All new reports being filed today are electronic. Burch said his department is in the process of scanning all old reports into digital format and will shred old paper files as this is done. This makes more information more quickly available to officers, he noted.

If the public wants a paper copy of a report such as an auto accident they may have been involved in, they still can have one printed, he said.

Each Cass patrol vehicle has a dash camera that comes on automatically when an officer turns on the emergency lights and siren or can be turned on manually, Burch said, officers following a drunken driver often use that camera to record erratic driving.

Officers also wear a camera about the size of a pack of gum that can record up to two hours of activity in front of them, Burch said.

Downloads from these video cameras, the small still camera officers carry or the digital audio recorder attach to the case file when downloaded into an officer’s laptop, Burch said.

All Cass squads are equipped with radar today, he added.

Burch has moved toward making all his personnel cross-trained to work as jailers, dispatchers and deputies. He regularly has one or more employees take updated training to then train the rest of the staff. He cited a long list of training required every one to three years that officers must take to keep certifications current.

Burch is not the only official to appreciate the upgrade.

Pike Bay Police Chief Zeb Hemsworth sent a letter to Burch and the county board recently to “express my gratitude for the man hours, days and months of hard work committed to implementing the 800 Mhz radio system in Cass County.”

“Our department will value this huge improvement to communication between all emergency responders within the county, and who serve the citizens who live here and visit here.

“I especially value the fact that this radio system will dramatically improve officer safety,” Hemsworth wrote.