2010: The State of Fire Service Communications

As we end the first decade of the 21st century, it is an appropriate time to take a look at the issues that have impacted fire service communications over these past 10 years. Many of the deficiencies in current systems — as well as many of the benefits...


As we end the first decade of the 21st century, it is an appropriate time to take a look at the issues that have impacted fire service communications over these past 10 years. Many of the deficiencies in current systems — as well as many of the benefits — were put into the spotlight on...


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As we end the first decade of the 21st century, it is an appropriate time to take a look at the issues that have impacted fire service communications over these past 10 years. Many of the deficiencies in current systems — as well as many of the benefits — were put into the spotlight on 9/11/2001.

In August 2008, the Department of Homeland Security released the National Emergency Communications Plan, setting goals and a timetable for developing disaster response communications. According to the plan, "By 2010, 90% of all high-risk urban areas designated within the Urban Areas Security Initiative (UASI) are able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies…By 2011, 75% of non-UASI jurisdictions are able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within one hour for routine events involving multiple jurisdictions and agencies…By 2013, 75% of all jurisdictions are able to demonstrate response-level emergency communications within three hours, in the event of a significant event as outlined in national planning scenarios."

Now that 2010 is here, where do we stand? It depends on who you ask and how. In November 2009, Sprint conducted a survey of 353 public safety answering points (PSAPs), call centers for fire, police and emergency medical services. While 68.8% responded that they provided interoperability for their users, only 40.9% said that this interoperability was state or nationwide. Even more troubling was the fact that 72% confirmed that they had areas of poor coverage. It is difficult to tell whether these 353 facilities are representative of the more than 6,000 such facilities nationwide; however, they do present a large enough sample to raise concern.

On a positive note, the 2009 International Fire Code contains provisions dealing with requirements to provide interior radio coverage, which should help reduce some of these dead spots. Interior coverage is an issue with many repeated radio systems, but especially with 800-MHz trunking. Placing the responsibility on the building owner to provide bi-directional amplifiers or other solutions can be compared in some ways to the need for sprinklers, and relieves the burden on municipalities from having to build additional radio sites during these lean times.

One battle for additional frequencies continues. The so-called "D block" of the 700-MHz spectrum presents an untold opportunity of broadband communications for public safety and potential for a nationwide emergency communications system. This issue has placed normally friendly organizations into occasionally oppositional positions, and failed to generate as much revenue as expected during auction. Several plans have been put on the table, and hopefully a reasonable solution can be reached without further delay.

"Social media" continue to be an increasing element of public safety communications. These tools lend themselves to a variety of applications, including recruitment and mass notifications. Searching the phrase "fire departments" on Facebook, for example, returns over 1,600 entries. Some agencies are using the Twitter application to post live call information. Coupled with Google Maps or other free or low-cost services, these can provide a graphic display of regional activity.

The burgeoning use of these forms of communication has also forced 911 centers to develop new policies and procedures for call handling. One growing concern is how to best handle "third-party" calls from concerned individuals who come across messages for help posted to social networks. When the author's location is known, it is not uncommon for someone to contact the local authorities with what may be either lifesaving or prank-producing information. Regardless of the often-anonymous aspect of the Internet, these calls must be taken seriously and have had many positive results. Last year, a Tweet to the actress Demi Moore that contained suicide threats led to the tracking down and hospitalization of a California woman. As far back as 2003, a family in West Virginia was saved from carbon monoxide poisoning by an Internet chat buddy in the United Kingdom. These represent only a few of the many verified incidents that had a positive outcome.

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