ICE, U.S. Border Patrol want access to Missoula County radio facilities

A number of public and private entities have communication facilities atop Point 6 north of Missoula. (Wikimedia Commons)

Missoula County commissioners want more information before allowing certain federal agencies, including ICE and the U.S. Border Patrol, access to their mountaintop radio facilities.

On Tuesday, Adriene Beck, Missoula County Emergency Services director, told the commission that the county should develop a more formal policy regarding how other organizations are allowed to use mountaintop radio facilities around the county.

That’s because more entities are asking to use the facilities. So the county should start paying more attention to what’s going on at the sites.

“We’re identifying all the equipment that’s not ours at our sites and working with our risk managers to make sure who’s in our spaces and who’s responsible for what,” Beck said.

The county owns several concrete bunkers that contain radio equipment for public safety communications, including the Pierce Lake repeater site in the Seeley area, the Miller Peak repeater, Mount Sentinel, Point 118 up Highway 12, Point 6 above Snowbowl and the Ellis repeater. The repeaters allow 911 dispatchers to dispatch first responders around the county.

Because the stations sit on U.S. Forest Service land, the county has usually made loose agreements with other groups to use the sites for free as long as they’re government agencies or nonprofit organizations, Beck said.

For example, Missoula Electric Coop has equipment at the Mount Sentinel facility while on Miller Peak, the state Department of Justice has equipment that allows the Highway Patrol to communicate with units as far away as Cut Bank. Ham radio groups also use various sites.

For-profit companies, such as Omnicom Paging, are also granted access, although they must pay a fee.

Once a group started using a facility, the county used to be fairly hands-off.

But now, the U.S. Border Patrol and ICE have asked for permission to install equipment in the county’s new facility on Point 6 and to use the T-1 microwave tower on Miller Peak. So Beck wanted to check with the commission before developing a more formal memorandum of agreement.

The commissioners appeared wary.

Commissioner Josh Slotkin asked whether the county would receive any benefit from allowing the Border Patrol to use the facility.

In the past, Beck said, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have been allowed space on county equipment so they could collaborate on drug investigations. The last time U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement used county communications was when Hells Angels rallied in Missoula in 2008.

County Chief Operating Officer Chris Lounsbury said ICE was involved because some members of the motorcycle group came from outside the country. So ICE provided intelligence information to local law enforcement.

“There were several arrests based on outstanding warrants for individuals from outside the U.S., some of which were coming over the northern border and presumably some that might have come over the southern border,” Lounsbury said.

Strohmeier pointed out that county radio stations might have been essential in 2008. But since then, the state has developed a more advanced radio system that federal agencies could use.

Beck said the U.S. Border Control needs a system to allow agents to talk to their headquarters in Helena or units up on the northern border. She said the Border Control has their own frequencies and wouldn’t need county frequencies, although they have the ability to jump on the county frequency if needed.

Strohmeier asked how Border Control agents were communicating now and why they couldn’t use cellphones. Beck said she didn’t think they could communicate via radio over long distances but a Border Patrol representative was needed to answer that.

The three commissioners said they wanted more details from the county sheriff and Border Control on whether the radio facilities were necessary and what they’d be used for before granting approval.