Firehouse Roundtable

As firefighters, we have come to rely upon accurate and uninterrupted communications as a means of enhancing our safety. While many of the tools in our arsenal are used frequently, none are used as routinely — or as often — as our communications devices. While we have progressed from the days of...


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As firefighters, we have come to rely upon accurate and uninterrupted communications as a means of enhancing our safety. While many of the tools in our arsenal are used frequently, none are used as routinely — or as often — as our communications devices. While we have progressed from the days of spinning watchman's rattles or banging on locomotive rims to sound an alarm, challenges await — because, when it comes to technology, it's more important to know where you're going than it is to know where you've been. In light of this, Firehouse® Magazine posed a single question to industry insiders regarding our future in this area of critical concern. Simply put, we asked:

Q: "From your industry perspective, what do you see as the greatest fire service communications challenge, and how are you and others in your particular area of expertise addressing this challenge?"

DIRK YOUNGis manager of National Public Safety Markets for Harris Corp.'s RF Communications Division. He joined the company in March 2007 and has more than 20 years of public safety experience, with more than 11 years of experience as a fire chief. In this capacity, he provides support for Harris' sales and marketing efforts. He also serves as the company's consultant liaison and fire industry advisor.

From my perspective, the greatest fire service communications challenge is the adoption of new and evolving technology. This goes beyond the current debate of digital versus analog, or conventional versus trunking.

Currently, radios are still largely used for voice communications only. And today's technology has grown well beyond the days of when the radio you were issued was a simple VHF or UHF radio that had a volume knob and channel selector. Radio systems, as well as the subscribers that are used on them, are more complex. While they bring added functionality to the users, they require more thought on how the new functionality will be utilized. Additionally, they require more comprehensive training to allow the user to properly utilize the equipment. Fire services train regularly on fire suppression, proper extrication skills and donning their SCBA (self-contained breathing apparatus) equipment. The same level of training must be provided for the communications equipment they use.

Conversely, the communications manufacturers must give more consideration to firefighters and how they do their jobs. The communications equipment should be simple to use so that firefighters can focus on the dangers around them and not have to worry about their radios. Communications systems can have the latest and greatest features and functions available, but if it is complicated to use and hampers them from doing their job, it will not be an effective tool."

MICHAEL BOYDis the president of Setcom Corp. Along with his business partner, James Roberts, Boyd has actively managed Setcom since acquiring it in 2004. Prior to acquiring Setcom, he worked in financial services for 10 years. He is formerly a volunteer firefighter. Founded in 1970, Setcom is a provider of headsets and intercom systems for fire apparatus.

Large, often noisy crew compartments on fire apparatus make it difficult for firefighters to communicate enroute to incidents and over time can lead to severe hearing loss. While this is not a new challenge for firefighters, it remains a persistent one as many departments still do not use headset systems on their apparatus.

At Setcom, we continue to educate firefighters about the need for headsets on apparatus, whether ours or an alternative. We also strive to make our headset systems as versatile as possible. As much as we might like otherwise, it seems that no two headset systems are the same. We feel strongly that providing a headset system designed to meet the unique needs of a department is often necessary to overcome objections. As with many fire equipment manufacturers, Setcom works hard to tailor systems to work with existing protocols and behaviors, rather than requiring a department to change its operating procedures to fit a headset system.

GREG RIDDLEis second vice president of the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) International, the oldest and largest public safety communications association. He is also a retired deputy fire chief of the Elk Grove Village, IL, Fire Department and spent 30 years in the fire service, with the last 20 years having responsibility for his department's communications. He has also served as the communications committee chair of the Illinois Fire Chiefs Association and the co-chair of the Mutual Aid Box Alarm System's Telecommunications, Communications & Dispatch Committee.

I feel the greatest current challenge for the fire service is coping with narrowbanding by the 2013 deadline. The process has been well defined by the FCC (Federal Communications Commission), but the difficulty comes in two areas: funding and logistics. The fire service has always had a reputation for using unique methods to fund their operations. This is because the majority of fire departments are volunteer operations. Narrowbanding will require some departments to replace old equipment that is not capable of being narrowbanded. If the department has narrowband-capable radios, at a minimum they will need to pay for software and hardware to retune their radios or pay for a technician to come in and do the work for them.

The more challenging component is the logistics in actually making the change to narrowband. Because the fire service has increasingly used automatic and mutual aid for dealing with routine and large-scale emergencies, narrowbanding will take a great deal of coordination between agencies. The easier transition will be on the local frequencies that are used by surrounding departments and those used for auto-aid operations.

The greatest challenge will be in coordinating the transition of frequencies that are used for mutual aid, especially those that are licensed for use in an entire region or state. These can range from mutual aid, to fireground to EMS frequencies and others. It is important to develop a schedule that is well known by every department and deadlines that are capable of being met both financially and operationally by all.

In Illinois, a consortium was initiated by the Illinois chapter of APCO. This consortium was convened to include all of the public safety disciplines in the state. The intent is to make everyone aware of the deadlines and bring all the stakeholders into one arena. Hopefully, this type of planning process will make the transition as smooth as possible for all involved.

JENNA RICHARDSONis vice president of product development for American Messaging Services and is responsible for the company's development and management of new product and service offerings and marketing strategies. Richardson has 15 years of diverse experience in the wireless industry in both sales and operations.

From what we hear in the field every day, one of the greatest communications challenges from my perspective is the pressure on the part of the fire service to move to new communication products and technologies. The risk here is that they are not completely proven with a long history of performance under many conditions and they are generally very expensive.

We at American Messaging are addressing this challenge by aggressively investing time, energy and resources into new products and applications that leverage the unique attributes of paging technology and to offer them at an affordable rate. Secondly, at every opportunity we educate to let people know why paging technology is still in existence and has been the communication method of choice for doctors, hospitals, EMS and first responders for decades. Our focus every day is to be dependable and continue to provide a robust, reliable and efficient nationwide paging network specifically for first responders.

TIM IRELANis a product manager, responsible for Tiburon Inc.'s Mobile Solutions and Fire & Rescue Solutions. Irelan has nearly 15 years of experience in the public safety industry and currently is a firefighter for the Riverside County, CA, Fire Department. Tiburon is a provider of automated public safety and security solutions to meet the needs of law enforcement, fire-rescue and corrections agencies. Tiburon offers fully integrated solutions including computer- aided dispatch, records management, mobile data and communications, field reporting and mapping systems.

Today's greatest challenge in fire service communications is the disparate information systems and difficulty in sharing data between different systems and vendors. Interoperability is crucial for fire service to be able to operate effectively and efficiently, especially during emergencies when the focus is on saving lives and property, not on the data system. Fire services need to be able to share information and resources across multiple jurisdictions and agencies as well as across other disciplines and services.

From the software perspective, interoperability and the ability to integrate with multiple systems has been at the top of the priority list. As part of the baseline computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system, Tiburon offers the ability for cross-discipline communications and data sharing on demand. Tiburon also continues to build tools using NIEM (National Information Exchange Model) conformance to be able to share information across disparate systems. Interoperability must be a priority so that public service personnel can focus on mission-critical work.

NORM RUPPENis chief executive officer of Quala-Tel Enterprises, and is tasked to continuously search and bring to market the latest communication technologies that will enhance firefighter safety and efficiency. Quala-Tel offers a broad range of communication products ranging from intercom/headset solutions for emergency apparatus including wireless communications, in-helmet and hands-free radio interface communication systems, including an "intrinsically safe" line, in-vehicle touch screen mapping software, pre-incident planning software and hybrid response guide software for extrication of accident victims, electronic personnel accountability and two-way signaling system (PASS), and a variety of portable, lightweight telescoping video/audio inspection and surveillance tools.

From our industry's perspective, we at Quala-Tel believe the greatest fire service communications challenge is to provide "state-of-the-art" integrated communication solutions that are reliable, durable, intuitive, and can operate the first time, all the time in dangerous and demanding environments that include high noise, extreme heat and, in some instances, explosive atmospheres. In this effort we constantly discuss "needs" with the first responders and constantly search technology worldwide in an attempt to marry the needs and the technology together.

MARK JASINis the senior vice president and corporate director for Kenwood U.S.A. Corp. Communications Sector. He has spent the past 28 years of his career in the land mobile industry. The past 10 years have been with Kenwood U.S.A. Corp. in various sales management positions, with the past five years being solely focused on business management.

One of the greatest challenges for the fire suppression community is the technology requirement for funding eligibility.

Law enforcement is normally dispatched and managed over a large geographical area. Conversely, fire suppression is dispatched in a much smaller area and managed based on events at a precise location. With grant funds, fire departments can address their communications system requirements, but in many cases, funds are only eligible to procure pre-defined technologies such as P25. Both federal and state agencies that control and disburse grant funds to local departments need to rethink the technology limitations they place on radio and system purchases.

Most of the U.S. remains rural, so requiring a department to use funds for only digital radios may not be in the best interest of the agency. This especially holds true for volunteer firefighters, since many purchase radio equipment using personal funds. Seventy-five percent of the firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers, so this is a considerable issue.

Although 12.5-kHz migration is necessary, analog still works effectively in narrow-bandwidth channels for most of these applications. Kenwood ensures that our digital radio equipment is capable of operation on both new digital radio systems, as well as current analog applications. Providing radios with both technologies supports the fire suppression community by offering the analog functionality needed to manage an incident and the enhanced dispatch capabilities of operation on the radio system. As their activities evolve into the radio system, the Kenwood product functionality does too.

JAY DORNSEIFhas 23 years in the fire service and 12 years as the advisor for the Emergency Preparedness Technology Degree program at Nash Community College in Rocky Mount, NC. He is a member of the National Academy of Emergency Dispatch (NAED) Fire Council of Standards and Fire Board of Curriculum. Dornseif is currently the fire consultant for Priority Dispatch Corp. in Salt Lake City, UT, and is a technical committee member of National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1221 and 1061. Priority Dispatch is a research company providing products and training for EMS, fire and law enforcement call-taking centers.

Reducing emergency vehicle collisions (EVC) is one of the greatest fire service communications challenges of the 21st century. With EVCs continuing to be the second-leading cause of line-of-duty deaths, the fire service must consider communications challenges to reduce these fatalities. There is no better place to address these challenges than the 911 dispatch center.

Here's why: From the beginning of a fire service call, the dispatch center plays a pivotal role in deciding whether a call requires an emergency or non-emergency response. In centers using a system of structured call taking, a dispatcher can determine the caller's chief complaint and by asking the caller a series of key questions, the dispatcher is able to send the most appropriate response. In all cases involving structured call taking, the level of response and factors differentiating between an emergency and non-emergency call is pre-determined by the local fire service.

In far too many cases, however, structured call taking is not the norm. Instead, the dispatcher is forced to sit on the fence when a call, any call, comes in. Because of a lack of standardized protocol and local fire service direction, the dispatcher sends everything lights and siren, including to situations not requiring the highest level of response as determined by the arriving crews. A home alarm system monitored by a commercial security business is a classic example. If your center is still sending the "parade response" to non-emergency home alarm calls, your department is rolling the dice in a deadly game that annually, in the United States, accounts for over 15,000 EVCs.

The problem is certainly not unique. Fire-based 911 communications centers need dispatchers trained in the telecommunications profession. Familiarity with the fire service and geographic area they serve is important, also, but tantamount is the ability to gather the information necessary for an appropriate response. Dispatchers should not have the added responsibility of figuring out what questions to ask and based on the limited information they might gather, what instructions to give the caller while at the same time sending everything in the station running lights and siren.

A call-taking protocol in place will help dispatch choose the correct chief complaints, and provide the key questions necessary for response and pre-arrival instructions, such as what the caller should do until help arrives. Most importantly, a standardized call-taking process gives local fire service the ability to accurately run emergency calls and manage resources. Your department will not only have the ability to save resources, but you will also have the potential of saving lives — the lives of your crew, drivers they encounter on the way to the emergency and the people depending on them when a true crisis occurs.

BARRY FUREY, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is director of the Raleigh-Wake Emergency Communications Center in North Carolina. During his 35-year public safety career, he has managed 911 centers and served as a volunteer fire officer in three other states. In 2002, Furey chaired the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials (APCO) International conference in Nashville, TN, and in 2005 he received an APCO life membership for his continued work in emergency communications.

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