There is an increased need for Minnesota’s emergency responders (such as law enforcement, fire service and emergency medical services) to exchange information within and across their own disciplines. It’s called interoperability, and it can help emergency responders save lives.
Minnesota has adopted many federal recommendations for improved interoperability, including:
- Employing a statewide interoperability coordinator (SWIC).
- Engaging a Statewide Executive Interoperability Committee (SEIC).
- Following a Statewide Communications Interoperability Plan.
(Our 2019-2021 Strategic Plan begins on page 19 of this report.)
- Adhering to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Interoperability Continuum.
- Developing a Communications Unit program.
In its most elemental format, interoperability provides common radio channels emergency responders can use to talk with one another. But to work successfully, interoperability must include more than just a shared technology. It requires a supportive governance structure, common procedures and practice. Interoperability solutions must also be put into use.
Minnesota is actively taking a deeper look at interoperability, even beyond voice interoperability over a radio. The newest challenge is interoperable data. Today, many of us use our telephones to text or consume data more than we use them to make voice calls. Those same needs exist for public safety as well.
What is Minnesota doing to achieve interoperability?
Minnesota has many historical interoperability initiatives, most of which are rooted in Land Mobile Radio (LMR) interoperability. These projects will serve us very well now and will springboard the state into the world of interoperable data.
Land Mobile Radio
Minnesota’s LMR is known as ARMER (Allied Radio Matrix for Emergency Response), and it is inherently interoperable. While most ARMER users spend most of their time using local, private talkgroups (channels), there are also local, county, regional and statewide interoperability talkgroups available for their use.
Minnesota Land Mobile Radio Conventional Interoperability Plan
Although nearly all of Minnesota’s public safety entities use the 800 MHz ARMER radio system, some of our public safety partners use VHF radio systems. This includes most of Minnesota’s interstate neighbors, out-of-state ambulances bringing patients to Minnesota hospitals, wildland firefighters, and federal law enforcement agencies. For the foreseeable future, Minnesota’s public safety community will need a way to communicate with these public safety partners.
In January 2020, the Statewide Emergency Communications Board approved the Minnesota Land Mobile Radio Conventional Interoperability Plan. This plan replaced the 2012 Cross Spectrum Interoperability System plan. It calls for existing VHF base station radios strategically located at 109 sites across the state to be updated with several key VHF interoperability channels and for the dismantling of the aging Motobridge network. These changes will allow all ARMER network-connected dispatch centers access to any of the VHF interoperability channels in the network.
A copy of the 2020 Minnesota Land Mobile Radio Conventional Interoperability Plan is available at this link.
This plan was amended by the Statewide Emergency Communications Board on August 27, 2020. The amendment is available at this link.
With virtually all of Minnesota’s public safety entities operating on ARMER, land mobile radio interoperability between Minnesota public safeties entities comes easily. Interstate interoperability, however, is another matter. Each border relationship is different as is the need for land mobile radio interoperability. In some cases major highways and urban areas connect two states and public safety routinely communicates with its neighbors. In other cases, a bridgeless section of river or a sea of crops divide Minnesota from its neighbor and there is little need for interoperability with public safety from the neighboring state.
To address varying needs, to develop commonality in processes, and to ensure successful interoperability, Minnesota’s Statewide Emergency Communications Board develop and approved the Minnesota Land Mobile Radio Interstate Interoperability Best Practices Guide and the Minnesota Land Mobile Radio Interstate Interoperability Crosswalk Plan. The Best Practices Guide emphasizes that each lane of the SAFECOM Interoperability Continuum—Governance, Standard Operating Guidelines, Technology, Training and Exercising, and Usage—be considered and identifies best practices for success. The Crosswalk Plan details an initiative for interoperability between state radio systems.
800MHz National Interoperability Channel Repeaters
Minnesota maintains about a dozen fixed repeater sites with 800 MHz interoperability channels. These sites allow for interoperability with non-ARMER system users with 800 MHz radios and serves Minnesota public safety as a redundant radio system in the unlikely event of an ARMER failure or overload. The approximate location of the fixed repeaters can be seen on this map.
Strategic Technology Reserve
Each of Minnesota’s seven emergency communications/services regions maintains a transportable telescoping tower and repeater system and a cache of spare radios collectively known as the Strategic Technology Reserve (STR). The STR provides a portable, redundant radio system available to support areas where ARMER may have been disabled, such as after a tornado, to support special events such as a county fair, and for interstate deployments.
The Communications Unit (COMU) is responsible for communications in the National Incident Management System (NIMS) Incident Command System (ICS). Minnesota’s communications professionals have embraced this methodology for supporting communications about incidents large and small. Minnesota has more than 60 communication unit leaders (COMLs) and nearly 20 communications unit technicians (COMTs) available.
Minnesota Field Operations Guide
The Minnesota Communications Field Operations Guide (MNFOG) is a collection of technical reference material to aid COMU personnel and other communications professionals during emergency incidents and planned events. The MNFOG is available to public safety answering points (PSAPs) and COMU personnel in a pocket-sized format and online in a PDF format.
As the MNFOG is updated, new full-sized PDF versions are published online and labels are made available to affix inside the back cover of the pocket-sized MNFOG. To print your own labels, use this Word document and print to an Avery 5164 label (or equivalent)
Figure 1: Interoperability Continuum