Fire Radio Communications: What You Need to Know

Despite the advent of two-way video and data communications, portable and mobile radios remain the critical lifeline for firefighters on the job. But today’s radios are anything but low-tech.

“Radios 10 years ago were mainly hardware devices that gave users the ability to talk and listen to communications from dispatch, incident command and other firefighters,” said Jackie Wasni, the mid-Atlantic territory vice president with Motorola Solutions. “Today’s radios are computers that give users the ability to talk, listen, program, send data, view data, be advised of low batteries, send emergency alerts and clear the system to allow users to talk as a priority above all other calls.”

In addition, she said, today’s mission critical radios provide users with intelligence, such as GPS location and evacuation alert, to help with critical decision-making.

That said, today’s radios also have their issues and their challenges, as do the communications systems that support them. One unresolved critical issue is the availability of broadband spectrum for public safety, and it is the object of intense lobbying in Washington. Here’s a rundown of what firefighters need to know, plus some new communications products that are worth considering.

Even before 9/11, the inability of fire and emergency medical service departments to talk each other and police was a big issue. Still, the communications problems encountered at the World Trade Center convinced all levels of government that something had to be done to resolve interoperability issues.

Some of the resulting efforts and accompanying funds went into “audio bridges” that allow incompatible systems to speak to each other. One of the simplest, least expensive and most popular was and still is the Incident Commander Radio Interface (ICRI). Made by Communications-Applied Technology, the ICRI permits a number of incompatible radios and telephones to be physically plugged into a common piece of switching hardware, with the audio passed from one radio system to another.

A second interoperability solution was the development of Project 25 (P25) radios. The concept behind P25 was to develop a series of open standards, so that radios made by different manufacturers could talk to each other.

“There has been a lot of progress made over the years to resolve the interoperability problem,” said Alan Caldwell, senior advisor to the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) government relations and policy department. “A billion dollars was allocated by Washington to help state and local governments purchase interoperability products to ease the problem nationwide. Meanwhile, the necessary P25 standards have been developed, tested and put into place.”

At the same time, he said more progress is needed in getting fire departments to use P25 equipment. “A lot has been accomplished in the area of interoperability,” he said, “but more needs to be done to solve this problem completely.”

Seth Leyman, the president of Communications-Applied Technology, is concerned about the reduced availability of government funds to purchase ICRI audio bridges for fire departments. “There’s either no money available to buy audio bridges today, or it is being reserved for long-term potential solutions like 700 MHz radios,” he said. “The result is that many fire departments don’t have interoperability solutions on hand now, even though they need them.”

For many years, United States television broadcasting companies used the 700 MHz band to broadcast analog signals for channels 52-69. Then the digital television transition took place in 2009, with the FCC compelling TV broadcasters to give up the 700 MHz band in exchange for new digital TV spectrum and licenses.

The cash-starved federal government moved to auction off the 700 MHz band to wireless carriers to earn billions of dollars. But certain sections of the spectrum were set aside for public safety users. The first are two narrowband segments at 769-775 MHz (Channels 1-960) for base operations and 799-805 MHz (Channels 961-1920) for mobile operations. Given that each channel is only 6.25 kHz in size, this spectrum is only usable for voice and/or low data rate communications.

The second chunk of the 700 MHz spectrum is 10 MHz and has been set aside for broadband communications – notably high-speed data, two-way video and multimedia. The problem is that public safety needs more spectrum to achieve the goal of national broadband public safety service, which is why the Public Safety Alliance (PSA) of fire, EMS and police agencies is lobbying for 10 MHz more in the adjacent section of spectrum (known as the D Block). Combined, that would give public safety 20 MHz of broadband spectrum nationwide, which would truly be a great platform for 21st century communications.

Unfortunately, the D Block is currently slated for public auction, despite strong lobbying by the PSA and others to reserve it for public safety use. “This has put the rollout of 700 MHz public safety broadband systems in limbo,” said John Facella, the director of public safety markets for Harris Corporation, an international communications and information technology company. “Congress and the administration still have to decide whether getting more money into the federal coffers is more important than the safety of fire, EMS and police officers who protect the public.”

The good news is that the PSA is making progress on Capital Hill. “Several bills have been introduced in the Senate and the House that would reallocate the D block spectrum to public safety instead of sending it to auction,” said Wasni. “The Senate bills also include significant funding for the buildout and continued operation and maintenance of a public safety broadband network. While these bills may need to be reintroduced in the new Congress, public safety has provided a firm foundation to support reallocating this spectrum.”

Against this backdrop, public safety equipment manufacturers have come out with some innovative and useful products related to keeping firefighters informed and safe.

Communications-Applied Technology’s ICRI-2PE portable repeater provides radio interoperability and a solution to getting signals into tunnels, subways and other shielded environments. The ICRI-2PE achieves that by using a 250-foot cable reel: Just attach one end of the cable to the 2PE’s two input ports and the other end to the radio, then take it up to 250 feet into the shielded environment. The 2PE comes in a fast deployable fly-away package, and runs for up to 24 hours on six AA batteries.

Keeping track of firefighters is always a major challenge for incident commanders. One possible solution is Harris’ new GR-100 System. “This is a wireless solution that tracks and transmits the location of firefighters and first responders while they are inside buildings,” Facella said. “The Harris GR-100 uses GPS, inertial sensors worn by the firefighters and accuracy-enhancing algorithms to provide precise position data by wireless.”

The system uses Tracker Modules attached to each firefighter’s SCBA, a radio system to send location information to incident commanders, and a tablet computer “Commander Unit” display to show where the firefighters are every few seconds, in three dimensions.

Motorola has introduced a family of P25 Phase 2 (second generation) portable and mobile radios under the APX name. “The APX7000XE was designed specifically for firefighters and the extreme environments that they work in every day, working in conjunction with firefighters in focus groups,” Wasni said. That is why the APX7000XE has dual microphone noise suppression technology to reduce background noise, and a design that works with firefighters’ gloves.

“The radio is easy to grip, hold and control in harsh conditions,” Wasni said. “The glove-friendly controls are big, recognizable and easy to distinguish. The large top display is easy to read, in dark or low light and the APX 7000XE is equipped with the largest emergency button in the industry, with programmable time delay.”

SpecOps Systems has developed a wearable computer that looks like something out of a sci-fi movie. The company’s WC2 features a processing unit and battery that the user wears and a wrist-mounted display and input device for controlling the unit. “We originally developed the device for special operations forces,” said SpecOps Chief Operating Officer Caroline Tucker. “But it didn’t take long for us to see how useful it could be for fire, police and EMS.”

The WC2 can link to the Web via cellular, Wi-Fi or even satellite. Despite its small size, this is a real Intel-driven computer that can run Windows, Linux or even DOS, if need be.

Tiburon Inc.’s latest solution to the challenges of firefighter communications is CommandCAD 2.6. This latest version of Tiburon’s computer aided dispatch (CAD) solution integrates with Tiburon’s FireRECORDS and MobileCOM solutions. “This means that firefighters can now get immediate access to departmental records on the layout of an affected building’s interior, its chemicals, hazards and its fire suppression systems,” said Tim Ireland, Tiburon’s product marketing manager. “They can also update the department’s records in real-time from the scene. The result is that the incident commander has the communications tools to make well-informed decisions as to how to safely and effectively deploy his resources.”

Taken as a whole, fire communications has improved over the last decade. But it is still not achieving its 21st century potential due to a lack of funds and limited radio spectrum. The successful resolution of the 700 MHz battle could help in both of those areas, but in the interim, fire, EMS and police remain hamstrung.

“Teenagers have access to faster data speeds and more handheld functionality than firefighters do today,” said Harris Corporation’s Facella. “There are lots of new technologies that can change this situation, such as the mobile industry’s 3G LTE (Long Term Evolution), which can work as well for public safety as it does for consumers. But this won’t happen without the bandwidth. We need 20 MHz in the 700 MHz band.”

In the interim, manufacturers have come out with some innovative communications solutions. Still, nothing can fully substitute for the kind of communications power that 700 MHz can offer first responders. That is why fire, EMS and police are so strongly behind the PSA’s lobbying efforts in Washington.

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