I Can't Hear You, Can You Hear Me?

This month, we focus on emergency communications, for the ability to hear and be heard can literally mean the difference between life and death for firefighters. At several recent incidents, in my position as assistant chief of the Tenafly, NJ, Fire Department, I had trouble communicating on the fireground. In the basement of a hotel, I could see my chief standing in the hallway 75 feet away, but we could not communicate with each other. My radio transmission wasn't reaching the street to my car's repeater because of the building's concrete construction. At another call, an officer was trying to give me a report by radio. I could see him, but my car was around the corner, so my pager was receiving him, but not my radio. And at a mutual aid fire, two of my firefighters were operating above me in our elevating platform. One firefighter was on the wrong frequency and the other had gotten his radio wet, so I couldn't talk to either one by radio.

Emergency communications have come a long way, especially since 9/11. After the World Trade Center attack and the communications problems that emergency responders encountered within the 110-story towers, many large metropolitan areas have moved forward in better communications, especially interoperability between city services, state and federal agencies, and neighboring fire departments. In his first of two articles, "2010: The State of Fire Service Communications," Barry Furey takes an in-depth look at issues that have impacted fire service communications over the past decade. He reviews the Department of Homeland Security's National Emergency Communications Plan, which sets goals and a timetable for developing disaster response communications. Barry also discusses building owners' installations of repeater systems to enhance fireground communications, new 700-MHz frequencies, and social media sites to provide even faster and broader coverage of everyday events. In his second article, "Fragile — Handle With Care," Barry examines the increasing vulnerability of our nation's 911 system. Since its inception in 1968, the 911 system has grown to handle an estimated 240 million calls annually and now covers 99% of the U.S. population. Few, however, give much thought to the reliability of the most important tool in the public safety arsenal: the 911 emergency number. Without quick and easy access to public safety services, requests for assistance would be routinely delayed and our citizens would be in a proverbial world of hurt. The reality, Barry notes, is that the current networks — designed around technology a half-century old — aren't up to answering the call.

In his Fire Technology column, "Emergency Communications: A Parallel Path," Charles Werner comments on how land mobile radio (LMR) and broadband are necessary for public safety to do its very best. Looking forward, Werner says, we must "begin with the end in mind" and push broadband development with the hope that there will be a convergence of voice and data and that mission-critical voice and data can reside on the same network and satisfactorily meet the needs of public safety. To effectively coordinate this, the Office of Emergency Communications and SAFECOM are including this dual-path strategy into the National Emergency Communications Plan.

In his column The Fire Scene, John Salka asks the question, is it too much to ask to equip every firefighter with a portable radio? John also suggests that maybe it's time to go back to the drawing board and start again, and urges the industry to develop radios that are smaller, lighter and have days of battery life. Rounding out our coverage of emergency communications, we invited the International Code Council (ICC) to address issues concerning Emergency Responder Radio Coverage, as it affects firefighters operating inside buildings and not being able to communicate with other firefighters or with outside commanders.

Dennis Compton writes in this month's Fire Politics column about the importance of participating in the annual Congressional Fire Services Institute (CFSI) National Fire and Emergency Services Dinner and Seminars in Washington, DC, on April 28 and 29, 2010. The theme of this year's program is "Making the Right Decisions," and there couldn't be a more important time for us to come together and focus on current issues that will impact our service — not only today, but for years to come. As Dennis says, we all need to be there and be counted.

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