Sheriff of Fremont County hopes to make $1.8 million jump to statewide radio system

During high-speed pursuits and other emergencies, deputies in Fremont County, Iowa, often use cellphones to communicate with each other and dispatchers.

It’s not as safe as using a radio. And there are other disadvantages: Deputies can’t hear it as easily.

But deputies opt for cellphones because their radios can’t reach all corners of the county, especially the southwest part. That’s largely because the Loess Hills block the signal from the county’s single emergency radio tower.

“It ain’t the best in the west,” Sheriff Kevin Aistrope said of the communication system.

There is a solution — for $1.8 million, the sheriff says. That’s the projected cost for the county joining a new statewide system. Doing so has two big benefits: It would greatly improve deputies’ ability to talk with each other over radios and it would better connect the county to its neighbors and to agencies across the state.

State troopers will use it. So will the Iowa Department of Transportation, as well as the counties that neighbor Fremont County. All of this would help Aistrope and his deputies.

“Those (new) towers will all work off one another,” Aistrope said. “It’s going to be a good deal when they finally get it done.”

The expectation is that the new system will work in at least 95 percent of Iowa. It is expected to go live this fall, said Chris Maiers, the statewide interoperability coordinator for Iowa.

“It adds a lot more capability and flexibility,” he said. “And every site is tied to its neighbors, and neighbor sites are tied to their neighbors, so it operates like one giant umbrella.”

One of the statewide system’s most important features is its interoperability. If someone in Glenwood needs to communicate with someone in Sioux City, it can happen far more easily.

“It’s a capability that we’ve never had before,” Maiers said. “It really simplifies things.”

Interoperability is particularly helpful during pursuits, where police officers and deputies chase suspects into adjoining counties. It would have been helpful in Fremont County, on a recent chase that crossed the Highway 2 bridge into Nebraska. A Fremont County deputy was forced to call dispatchers on his cellphone, who then had to contact authorities in Nebraska to alert them that the pursuit was coming.

In recent years, Nebraska adopted what was supposed to be a statewide system. While it is used by the Nebraska State Patrol and other state law enforcement agencies, few local agencies have jumped on board, mostly because of cost, said Brian Petersen, president of the Nebraska State Troopers Association.

Cost is a concern in Fremont County. Terry Graham, vice chairman of the Fremont County Board, said the county’s expenses are slightly exceeding its $12 million in revenues this year.

“We need to figure out how we’re going to come up with the money without raising taxes too much,” he said.

The county may try to pass a bond after July 1. If that occurs, Fremont County would adopt the system in the 2019 fiscal year.

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