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Armstrong County emergency services switch to better radio system

Betty Ramer operates a wall of computers that control the county's new 800 MHz digital trunk radio system at the Armstrong 911 Center in Rayburn.

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013, 12:36 a.m.

RAYBURN – Reliable communication can be a life-and-death matter for police, fire, ambulance services or any emergency response agency and the people they serve. That's why Armstrong County officials spared no expense to install “The Switch.”

Armstrong 911 coordinator Ron Baustert explained that the switch, as it is called, is an 800 MHz computer-controlled radio system designed to provide reliable and efficient communication in virtually every area of the county.

“Our old radio system covered 50 to 60 percent of the county at best,” Baustert said. “The new system gives us 99.4 percent coverage. It uses the least amount of resources in the most efficient way.”

He explained that the new communication system is a digital trunk system that, thanks to 14 towers placed throughout the county, allows nearly 100 percent coverage and, for the first time, instant communication among police, fire, ambulance, and, for example, road crews.

The system uses the Motorola Astro 25, known as “The Switch,” to automatically assign radio frequencies by computer. The complicated system is designed to run on emergency power provided by “clean power” generators designed to eliminate variations in voltage or voltage spikes that could damage computer systems and other sensitive electronic equipment. Baustert said that while all computer systems are subject to crashes, the chance of a widespread system failure is very small because of “numerous backup systems” in place.

While glitches are a possibility, the new system already has proved its worth. Armstrong 911 operator Betty Ramer said the day the system was activated, there was a serious crash with injuries on Cochran Mills Road, an area known for poor communications. Ramer said the responding ambulance company reported it had perfect communication with Armstrong 911 and other agencies. “That wouldn't have been possible with the old system,” she said.

County Commissioner Rich Fink said he had actually received calls at home from first responders telling him how good the new system is.

Moreover, the digital system coverage is not limited to Armstrong County. In the event of a widespread disaster, Armstrong, Indiana and Westmoreland counties can link their digital trunking systems. Baustert said that Fayette County may adopt the system this year and Somerset County may follow suit in the near future.

“There are counties that do not have a digital system yet,” Baustert said, “and Butler is one example. However, we do have reliable communication with Butler. They have several of our older radios, and we have several of theirs. There is no reason people cannot talk to each other.”

Baustert said Armstrong 911 employs 10 full-time and eight part-time dispatchers and support staff. Before a dispatcher is allowed to work with the system without close supervision, he or she must undergo 380 hours of training. He added that the center averages 100 to 150 calls per day, amounting to 42,000 per year.

“With that volume of calls, you have to have a system that is more than reliable,” he said. “We're saving lives, and every second counts.”

Tom Mitchell is a staff writer for Trib Total Media.

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