Steamboat Springs Routt County is a cooperative county when an emergency is in progress.
When a fire department is called out to a potential fire, law enforcement often goes along. When a bear is spotted in a neighborhood, police often accompany wildlife experts. It's for those situations and dozens of others that at 7 a.m. Monday morning, all Routt County emergency response agencies switched to an 800 megahertz, digital radio system that connects to a statewide network.
Communications Director JP Harris said interoperability among agencies inside and outside of the county was the primary reason the county switched over to the new system. The switch to the 800 MHz system has occurred across the state in the past decade, the same length of time it has been discussed in Routt County. By moving to the new system, local emergency responders will be able to talk directly to Colorado State Patrol troopers, Colorado Division of Wildlife officers and special units from Denver, in addition to any Routt County emergency responder.
The radios arrived in 2007, but it wasn't until they could all be installed, programmed and linked together through the dispatch center that they were ready to take over for the old VHF radio system.
Harris said the switch included "several hundred" radios, between the personal radios for each emergency responder and the mobile units in each vehicle.
Because the system is digital, dispatchers will be able to see who is calling each time an officer presses the talk button. Special emergency buttons on each of the law enforcement radios also will provide an additional level of safety.
Supervisor and 911 Coordinator Sharon Clever said that if an emergency button is pressed - say if an officer is in a fight and unable to talk - all attention will be diverted to the call.
"We get a very loud noise on all four of our consoles. We have to go ahead and acknowledge that with a key to silence it, and we check the officer," she said.
Routt County Emergency Management Director Bob Struble said he has used the 800 MHz system several times in the past, and he's confident it will be an improvement.
"It gives the local emergency responders a lot more options than we had on VHF. It's the way of the future, really," he said.
Struble said the 800 MHz system is better able to penetrate buildings, something that is especially important to firefighters.
Even so, as with any radio system, there are several areas across the county that don't receive full coverage, especially Oak Creek and Yampa.
At a fire at South Routt Elementary School in Yampa on June 3, emergency responders were able to try out the new system, with mixed results.
"They had some issues trying to talk out of the town of Yampa," Struble said. "The tactical channels worked great on scene, but (South Routt Fire Protection District Chief Chuck Wisecup) was having trouble talking back to dispatch."
Harris said the "dead spots" could be resolved by installing a repeater or another tower site in the South Routt area. There are four Routt County tower sites, with another two in neighboring counties that officers can use. But even if the 800 MHz radios don't work, all emergency responders still have the old system as a backup. Struble said that between the two systems, the county should have nearly full coverage.
The radio system was purchased during the past several years, mostly with federal grant money, Struble said.
"After 9/11, interoperability became an issue, and a lot of grant money was made available," he said. "We've been picking up a grant here, a grant there, and that's basically how we did it in Routt County."
The new sets cost about $2,900 for each personal radio and $3,600 for each car radio.