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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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).