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...
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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 FirehouseÂ®.) 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.