Fire Service Communications: A 20-Year Overview

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 Alerting Receiver was one step in the evolution from firehouse sirens to digital pagers (1980).

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.

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

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.

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

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.

There are two areas, however, where, in the Spirit of '76, truly revolutionary changes have occurred. The first is in computers. And it is this change that has had the most widespread effect because it has influenced the development of adjunct products. Many of the improvements already discussed rely to some degree upon computers to make them work. Whether its controlling the channel assignment of a trunked radio or capturing the voice of an excited caller, microprocessors are involved.

But computers as computers have also traveled far in 20 years, with the capacity of dispatch and record management networks increasing and comparative prices coming down. While still reasonably complex, the use of open architecture and familiar operating systems have contributed greatly to their proliferation.

Graphic user interfaces, electronic maps and the ability to access external databases all have been developed since this publication first took form. Chemtrec, initially available only by telephone, can now be connected by modem. Responding units can now communicate by mobile data terminals (MDTs), receive photographs of the buildings interior on mobile video terminals (MVTs) and have their response tracked on automatic vehicle location (AVL).

Since the early 1990s, AVL has made use of another emerging technology, the Global Positioning System (GPS). Whereas location used to be provided through ground-based triangulation, GPS provides uncanny accuracy by means of satellites. In addition to supporting AVL, GPS is also a boon to wildland firefighters and search-and-rescue teams who rely on accurate locations in wilderness areas. A variety of portable computers have also emerged, including laptops which can run plume dispersal programs, hand-helds which integrate bar coding for inventory and firefighter accountability, and those which include radio and data storage capacity.

Photo by Barry Furey
A modern digital audio tape recorder is about the size of a microwave oven (1996).

Photo by Barry Furey
A portable satellite telephone fits in a suitcase and can be used for disaster recovery or the management of remote emergencies (1996).

Perhaps the following best sums up the degree to which computers have been founders of this fire service revolution: Many electronic pocket address books possess more processing power than the onboard computer in the Apollo spacecraft. In other words, looking up your friend's telephone number has become more sophisticated well, almost than flying to the moon.

It wasn't all that long ago that when I mentioned the term "Internet," I felt compelled to provide an explanation of what it was. Now pre-schoolers can more than likely tell me. On other occasions, the topic was cellular telephones. It was 1984 and their sales had not yet exceeded the birth rate. That would soon change.

The breakup of AT&T and the resultant deregulation of the telephone industry has had a profound effect on both the public and public safety, as have new ways of communicating. Look at any picture of an incident command post. Chances are you'll see as many wireless telephones and faxes as you see white hats. And wireless is truly the term, because cellular telephones are already being upstaged by personal communications services (PCS) offering the advantages of digital, just as PCS is being bypassed in certain situations by satellite telephony.

A briefcase-sized unit can get you contact in remote areas far from wireless coverage, or during natural disasters when much of the conventional telephone system could be damaged or overloaded. During this time, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has also instituted frequency auctions and addressed the narrowing of bandwidths; each issue having a significant impact on our present and our future.

And no discussion of communications would be complete without a mention of how we communicate. The incident command system, with its emphasis on plain voice messaging, singular point of contact and structured channels of information exchange, has had as measurable an effect on our efficiency as any of these triumphs of technology.

During the past two decades, the growth of fire service communications has paralleled that of Firehouse. Voice recognition software, and devices which can translate run card information to synthesized speech are already a reality. Copper cables have become fiber optics. Cellular has transitioned to digital personal communications, and much of what we see and hear has been bounced back to us from somewhere in space.

Where we go from here, only time can tell. But if the last 20 years are any indication, it will be an exciting time.

Barry Furey, a Firehouse® correspondent, is executive director of the Knox County, TN, Emergency Communications District. He is an ex-chief of the Valley Cottage, NY, Fire Department, ex-deputy chief of the Harvest, AL, Volunteer Fire Department and a former training officer for the Sevoy, IL, Fire Department.