Communications 2008: Radios, Regulations and Rebanding

Barry Furey cites recent events that will shape the future of fire service communications, from funding opportunities to upgraded hardware and software.


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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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 Firehouse.com, 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.