Fire Service Communications: A 20-Year Overview

Barry Furey shows how changing technology has helped shape and improve the fire industry of today.


In 1976, the United States paused to look back at a revolution that took place 200 years before. Twenty years later, we may pause to look back at a revolution that occurred in one tenth of that time: the revolution in fire service communications. Photo by Barry Furey The Home...


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In 1976, the United States paused to look back at a revolution that took place 200 years before. Twenty years later, we may pause to look back at a revolution that occurred in one tenth of that time: the revolution in fire service communications.

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Photo by Barry Furey
The Home Alerting Receiver was one step in the evolution from firehouse sirens to digital pagers (1980).


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Photo Courtesy of Zetron Inc.
Modular electronics support both Enhanced 911 and instant playback of digital messages (1996).

The dispatch center of two decades ago, then considered state of the art, in some cases relied on technology that dated back to the Chicago fire. Alarm registers that monitored supervised looped telephone circuits punched out box numbers by hammering imprints into paper. Four hits, pause, two hits, pause, two hits was an audible and visual indication of the receipt of box 422. Many of these corner pull boxes now serve as bases for ashtrays and lamps but as municipal alarm systems shrink, private pro-viders continue to grow. The automatic alarm of the 1990s is commonly received by telephone or microwave and digitally displayed at a central station hundreds of miles removed from the scene.

Digital is also the word when it comes to tape recording. In fact, in some instances, tape is no longer involved, being replaced by a computer chip or hard disc drive. Instant playback devices, used to replay emergency messages to dispatchers, once consisted of endless loop tapes contained in a suitcase-like case. Digital recording has significantly improved audio quality (much like a CD vs. a cassette) but has also improved indexing and retrieval while reducing the number of moving parts.

When it comes to master loggers, which keep track of all radio and telephone activity, reel-to-reel recorders have progressed through using VCR cartridges to digital audio tape (DAT). Newer models store data in addition to capturing voice, making a search by caller's telephone number, for instance, a practical request. Downsizing has also taken place. What once required the space of a refrigerator now is stored within the confines of a microwave.

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Photo Courtesy of Intergraph Corp.
The addition of mapping and response routing to computer-aided dispatch provided dispatchers with new tools (1990).


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Photo Courtesy of Intergraph Corp.
Dispatch computers rely increasingly on Windows-based software and support a wide range of programs and features (1995).

Console electronics that control radio systems have also undergone migration. During the past 20 years, what began as a group of simple switches has become a color CRT which can select a single channel or set up a cross patch of several through the touch of a finger on the screen. The radio systems too have metamorphosed, with conventional VHF channels giving way to 800 Mhz trunked networks, the first of which was established in 1980.

Shortly, due to standards such as that developed by the Association of Public-safety Communications Officials-international (APCO), departments will be able to mix radios from multiple manufacturers in what once was a highly proprietary technology. Sending out the troops has seen some changes, too. Stationary alerting receivers have given way to pagers, which besides tone and voice now allow for receipt of alphanumeric messages.

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Photo by Barry Furey
Amplified speakers and handsets have given way to headsets with noise-canceling microphones (1979).


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Photo by Barry Furey
Reel-to-reel recorders are giving way to smaller units using digital audio tape (1984).

In the past two decades, dispatchers have also been assisted through the refinement of signaling units which accommodate a wide variety of formats and can connect to multiple transmitters. The push of the proper button can now page out the hazmat team, activate the warning sirens, alert the local emergency room or do all three at once. Formerly, an individual encoder might be required for each, and the addition of a new station could require factory service. Now, a few keystrokes accomplish the same task. Back in the field, the pump operator may likely be outfitted with a headset and microphone designed for use in high noise environments; a direct replacement for handsets and amplified speakers.

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