Communications 2008: Radios, Regulations and Rebanding

It has been almost 85 years since the fire service first used radio communications. In this period that has spanned two centuries, significant improvements in technology have made for more reliable systems and devices that have decreased dispatch and response time while increasing firefighter safety. Our reliance on telephone and telegraph systems, and the dedicated alarm circuits that followed, has an even longer history. However, telecommunications devices of 2008 bear little resemblance to those of earlier eras.

During the past year alone, several events occurred that will serve to shape the future of fire service communications. These range from funding opportunities to upgraded hardware and software. Recent legislative changes will also have a significant impact. Let's take a closer look at how all these changes will affect us.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has been busy updating its standards relating to fire communications. Last year, it sanctioned a survivability test of portable radios conducted by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to help evaluate the performance of these devices under structural fire conditions. While serious problems were noted when the radios were left completely exposed, most performed well when protected, as they would be, in the pocket of a turnout coat.

In September, the NFPA released a draft of updates to Standard 1221: The Installation, Maintenance, and Use of Emergency Services Communications Systems, which covers both the physical plant and operating requirements of fire service dispatch centers. The current guidelines actually were adopted in 2006, and added language concerning network and data security. Through the years, additional attention has been given to call processing times and the physical security of the facility, as the document has kept pace with changes in the discipline.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has also had a banner year when it comes to public safety, particularly during September. That's when it issued a memorandum concerning the progress of 800 MHz rebanding. While finding that Sprint/Nextel had failed to meet a deadline last December, no fines were imposed. The timely continuance of this process is critical to public safety agencies that use these affected channels, because it is targeted at reducing the current interference caused by wireless telephones. Rebanding will segregate fire service and telephone users into distinct groups, rather than have them intermingle on adjacent frequencies as is currently the case.

The clock also continues to tick on the so-called "narrowbanding" of fire service frequencies outside the 800-MHz band. This initiative aims at increasing the spectrum efficiency of radios, eventually creating four channels where only one now exists. Since some of these frequencies are used for both voice communications and dispatch signaling, departments must stay abreast of this calendar and purchase compliant equipment accordingly. (For greater detail on this critical item, see "FCC Mandates Frequency Narrowbanding: Are Your Radios Ready?" by Charles Werner in the November 2006 issue of Firehouse®.) A variety of radios and pagers that meet these new requirements are currently in production.

The FCC also clarified its rules concerning the location of cellular callers, specifying that accuracy measurements must be taken on a jurisdictional basis, rather than being averaged over a larger area such as a region or state. While the full implementation will not be required for another five years, it should do much to improve the reliability of data received by all 911 centers. Although the ruling was not popular with wireless service providers, the present method of calculating the viability of the data delivered is comparable to providing Insurance Services Organization (ISO) ratings for a broad area rather than on the capabilities of the responding department. This action came on the heels of calls for improvement by professional telecommunications organizations, and a study that found problems with accurately locating many of the estimated 230,000 wireless 911 requests made daily in the United States.

Planning for Disasters

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) issued National Planning Guidelines as a means of assisting local agencies to prepare for disasters. Included in this document is a discussion of interoperable communications. To this end, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), a part of DHS, has been putting money where its mouth is. As reported by, fire departments in Bryan County, GA, and Walton County, FL, received $1 million each in Assistance to Firefighters Grants (AFG) to upgrade communications. And since interoperability involves the use of common terms as well as common means of communications, many local governments continue to train staff members in the National Incident Management System (NIMS). Of course, since eligibility for SAFER (Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response) grants has been tied to NIMS compliance, this emphasis on education may be as much financial as it is practical.

Improved Equipment

On the hardware and software side, manufacturers continue to move to make equipment more reliable and to reflect industry trends. However, in the case of telephones, much of these industry trends have been driven by the consuming public. Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) has made significant inroads during the past year, both inside and outside the dispatch center. While more and more Americans rely on the Web to give them dial tone, the major Public Safety Answering Point (PSAP) telephone suppliers all currently offer 911 equipment that is based on this technology. On the legislative side, as of this writing, House Bill 3403, The 911 Modernization and Public Safety Act of 2007, was still awaiting passage. If approved, it would, among other things, confirm the right to collect 911 service fees from VoIP customers similar to those already in place for wireless and conventional telephone users.

With the pathway to telephone access via the Internet now seemingly open to a variety of devices, including video games, the conversion to completely digital equipment and networks is a foregone conclusion. Many agencies are also turning their attention to Next Generation 911 initiatives, such as the receipt of text and video as part of the initial emergency call. The implementation of a truly nationwide system, however, is still several years off as major changes must also be made to the 911 network in order to support such additions. (See "Next-Generation 911: It's Not Your Father's Emergency Number," Firehouse®, August 2007.)

Last month, Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates announced that a technology partnership between Ford Motor Company and Microsoft had resulted in a vehicle that will automatically dial 911 in case of an accident. While the concept of Automatic Crash Notification (ACN) is not new, previous iterations contacted an interim monitoring service such as OnStar or ATX. The 911 Assist feature, as it is known, will activate the driver's cell phone to make an emergency call utilizing the same system that currently integrates personal electronic devices with the car. The implications of this announcement far exceed the advertised application, in that it potentially marks the most significant step away from the privatization of telematic services.

San Francisco firefighters, as well as those in Oakland and the surrounding region, announced plans to establish a 700 MHz radio network, tying in dozens of agencies, including mass transit. In light of difficulties encountered during the 1989 earthquake and the 1991 East Bay Hills fire, the $200 million system is designed to provide interoperability throughout the region. The 700-MHz band provides additional capabilities such as data and video applications, and will be the next area of exploration for public safety. The FCC recently took additional steps to encourage private/public cooperation in an effort to expedite development of the 700-MHz bandwidth.

Interoperability, such as that provided by the California network, continues to be a hot button for both fire departments and manufacturers. Several vendors are currently producing APCO Project 25 compliant radios. Project 25 is a standard adopted by the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials that requires that radios from any vendor may operate on previously incompatible trunking systems. While the original APCO Project 16 created baselines for 800-MHz trunked radios, it did not address the proprietary nature of these networks, wherein the infrastructure, mobiles and portables all had to be the same brand. The clear air interface established by Project 25 removes this impediment.

A collaboration of manufacturers cooperated in a pilot project for the Quad Cities area of Illinois and Iowa that provided not only voice interoperability, but data and video as well. Meanwhile, many cities have moved toward using "mesh networks" as a means of delivering these additional services. Rather than utilizing high-powered transmitters, mesh utilizes a series of routers located throughout a jurisdiction to link and relay signals back to the host. Fixed mesh networks have been used to provide security for the Super Bowl, and can be configured to deliver real-time video, like that from traffic cameras, to responding units.

Of course, interoperability involves more than just fixed systems. One critical component is the ability to integrate users on the fly. To this end, devices utilized to provide on-scene management of disparate radios are becoming smaller and more feature filled. Some can now be easily carried in the back of a command vehicle for use when required. Mesh networks, too, can be totally mobile, where devices link to each other, rather than to a host. This ability is extremely useful in remote and disaster operations, where infrastructure may be non-existent or destroyed. Nor are radios the only area of concern.

Computer-Aided Dispatch

Computer-aided dispatch (CAD) systems are another common communications tool beset by proprietary problems. Essentially, many CAD systems can't directly "talk" to each other for a variety of technical reasons. Because of this, dispatch centers that commonly receive one another's calls have to transfer the caller or relay the information verbally. Obviously, this can cause delays and contribute to errors. Between requests for mutual aid and the nature of wireless call routing, the need to seamlessly share data is there. Devices now exist that can connect multiple computers to allow for immediate exchange of this important information.

Computers in the field are also making news, with a variety of models hitting the market. Many entrants into this arena are smaller than their predecessors. Some notebook computers now weigh substantially less than two pounds. The federal government is conducting evaluations of ruggedized personal digital assistants (PDAs) that can connect to the Web and carry out secure communication by a variety of means. If this is a little hi-tech for you, take heart. Public safety software is currently available for your Blackberry, as well.

While VoIP has made inroads into the telephony market, Radio over Internet Protocol (RoIP) stands poised to make a similar entrance. RoIP uses digital technology and Internet-based protocols to control and manage radio transmissions. Although initially focused on dispatch console operation, both applications will eventually support the concept of a virtual 911 center, where telecommunicators will be able to log in and answer and dispatch calls from any location having secure high-speed Web access. During disasters or severe weather incidents where travel is limited, additional dispatchers could be placed in service without having to leave their living rooms. (In May 2007, Firehouse® author Chris Langlois covered another important aspect of fireground communications in "Accountability Systems: Do You Really Know Who's Missing?")

The good news here is that today's accountability systems are truly interactive, supporting two-way communications and real-time tracking of firefighters. With the introduction of "intelligent" turnout gear that monitors a host of environmental conditions, we are moving closer to the reality of having the location and condition of interior crews automatically reported to the incident commander, safety officer or dispatch center. This is a far cry from the old "three long blasts on the air horns means evacuate the building" manner of operation. Some of the newer devices are actually available as integral components of self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA).

While there are still significant issues to be overcome, we have come a long way from the watchman's rattles and trumpets that were the earliest cornerstones of how we were alerted to alarms and received orders on the fireground. Future generations of firefighters will no doubt look back at our current technology and view it as being similarly primitive.

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.