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Fire, Police to convert to all-digital communication


NORTH PORT -- The flexibility, clarity and dependability of modern, 800 MHz digital radio communications has come to North Port's two emergency services.

The North Port Fire Rescue District switched from its outmoded VHF system to 800 MHz on May 27. When enhancements to its computer system are completed, the Police Department will follow with its own big switch over sometime in late June, according to Capt. Bill Colligan.

With North Port's imminent adoption of the new digital communications technology, the only agencies in the region still using VHF radios will be the Nokomis Fire Department and the Englewood Fire District.

Communications on the 800 MHz band has been around for about 15 years, Fire Rescue District Chief Bill Taaffe said. Beginning life as a standard analog system, it was initially marketed as a fairly basic replacement for VHF. Even in this form, it soon became the system of choice for emergency agencies because of its greater clarity and carrying distance.

Some ten years ago, however, the system began to assume the status of a national standard when the capability to digitally multiplex radio signals was added. Locally, this will mean that the Fire Rescue District, formerly limited to only nine VHF channels, will have as many as 150, 800-MHz channels, or "talk groups," at its disposal. This means that administrators, dispatchers and firefighters won't have to "talk over" or interrupt each other during an emergency.

And the advantages of the 800 MHz digital radio system don't stop there. Taaffe and Interim Deputy Fire Chief Howard Bearse had no trouble listing the many reasons why they're so enthusiastic about the new technology:

* In any emergency large enough to require mutual aid, North Port emergency personnel will now be able to talk with other local emergency agencies immediately and easily. Formerly, in order to communicate with other agencies already on the 800 MHz system, North Port Police and Fire had to distribute some of their own portable VHF radios to the assisting agencies.

* Six "repeater" towers, one of which is located on Price Blvd. near the Utilities Department, give the county-wide 800 MHz system a safety margin based on redundancy. The city's old VHF system was vulnerable to catastrophic failure because just a single tower, serving both Fire Rescue and Police, supported it.

* A "panic button" occupies a prominent position on the new portable radios that emergency personnel will carry. In an extreme emergency - trapped in a fire, for example - a firefighter can press the button and his communications will go straight to the dispatcher, who can summon rescuers.

* The digital programmability of 800 MHz gives emergency administrators the ability to assign a channel to a specific incident. This channel can then be monitored by all local and assisting agencies working the incident, leaving the dispatch channel free to continue its function.

* Inside their fire trucks and emergency vehicles, emergency personnel will wear new headsets with microphones. The headsets will function as an intercom system, allowing firefighters to talk easily, without having to shout over sirens and other noise. To talk to another emergency vehicle, the wearer of a headset needs only to push a button to switch to radio communications.

* "Dead spots," where communication is impossible due to distance from the tower and physical obstructions, plagued the old VHF system. Fire Rescue District personnel have tested the new 800 MHz and have discovered no dead spots, even in the most remote eastern end of the city.

* The system can be easily configured to suit any emergency situation. One such pre-programmed configuration is a wide-area mutual aid channel that gives local emergency personnel instant access to all other emergency services throughout the entire state.

Taaffe offered another example from his own experience. While employed by the Myrtle Beach (SC) Fire Department, he and many of his fellow firefighters were called to duty in Miami after Hurricane Andrew. Even then (1992), the Miami authorities were able to use computers to replace the Myrtle Beach 800 MHz channels with Miami's own local emergency services channels. After three weeks in Miami, the Myrtle Beach volunteers returned home after having their own channels restored to their radios via computer.

Taaffe and Bearse said they don't expect 800 MHz communications to become obsolete any time soon. Because it occupies a part of the radio spectrum that tends to enhance the clarity of communications, 800 MHz has so far demonstrated that it is a solid platform for the continuing digital communications revolution.

Sarasota County constructed the "backbone" of the county-wide 800 MHz digital radio system at a cost of $10.4 million in revenue raised by the continuation of the one-cent sales tax. The system was activated on October 29, 1997.

"The county maintains the backbone of the system, including all the towers," said Bill Quigley, Radio Communications Manager for Sarasota County Public Safety and Communications. "It's the responsibility of the local agency to purchase the number of radios they need."

To expand the system sufficiently to add North Port emergency services, Sarasota County added $195,000 in additional resources to the North Port tower site in April. The same resources were added to the Englewood tower site in anticipation of the Englewood Fire District's joining the system.

The city of North Port spent $861,000 in penny sales tax money to purchase 800 MHz radios for the Fire Rescue District and the Police Department. These radios include: 87 portable radios (handheld) -- 54 for Police and 33 for Fire Rescue; 64 mobile radios (in-vehicle) - 49 for Police and 15 for Fire Rescue; and two consolettes, or base stations (one for each agency).

Although North Port public safety personnel eagerly anticipate all the advantages the new radio system will give them, private individuals who use scanning radios to monitor emergency channels may not be so pleased. Analog VHF scanners like those sold by electronics stores will not be able to pick up 800 MHz digital channels.

Digital scanners are available, but they are not able to monitor both sides of a conversation, except by chance. That's because the 800 MHz system uses "talk groups." The members of a talk group can always hear each other, even though the system is constantly assigning new channels to the group with each press of the Talk button. Quigley said one company has just started marketing a fairly good 800 MHZ digital scanner that overcomes the frequency-shifting problem, but the price tag is around $750.


Staff Report