Report: Is West Virginia Radio System Set Up to Fail?

Reports say multi-million dollar system could fail during emergency situations.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) -- Reports say that the same multi-million dollar digital radio system that West Virginia is currently implementing could fail during emergency situations. One post-incident report out of Virginia claims the failure of the radios contributed to a firefighter's death. The concerns have some in Kanawha County taking proactive measures to make sure that doesn't happen here.

Kanawha County Emergency Operations Center Coordinator, Dave Erwin, tells that the county is aware of reports of radio problems in other states that use the same Motorola P25 digital system that West Virginia has in place. Those reports mostly pertain to the inability to hear radio transmissions in high-noise environments, and radios receiving "out of range" signals when inside buildings.

The national reports are making their rounds with concerned firefighters in the Kanawha Valley, although not everyone is included in the discussion. One of those not in the loop is the president of Kanawha County's Metro 911 Board. Kent Carper tells he is not aware of any issues with the digital radios nationally. Still, Erwin says the 911 center is working on the issue.

Digital Radio Studies and Reports

The International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) recently studied the differences between analog and digital radio systems after departments brought their concerns to the organization.

In its interim report dated May 2008, the IAFC found that analog communication was more intelligible than digital in 6 of 9 high-noise environment tests. It has come up with a "best practices" guide for users of digital radios and is working to develop audio-intelligibility standards. (read the report here)

Without a current standard in place, the IAFC came up with this desired outcome for digital radios: "Analog voice intelligibility quality or better in digital radios, particularly in those areas tested where firefighter communication is paramount to their survival."

MRT, a Mobile Radio Technology publication, reported that the Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue in Woodbridge, Virginia, released a report that claims problems associated with the county's digital radio system contributed to the death of one of its firefighters. (read the article here)

And in Indianapolis, Indiana, has reported that that firefighters have questioned the safety of the their digital radio system, and have asked the county to delay their switch from analog to digital. (read the story here)

Kanawha County's Digital Radios

Erwin says the technology in the radios that recognizes and converts a person's analog voice into a digital signal hasn't been perfected yet, but he says the state has been lobbying radio manufacturers to come up with a fix.

"I feel the manufacturers are working hard," said Erwin, who also sits on the state's Interoperable Working Group, the organization that oversees the statewide radio network.

High noise environments are common for firefighters, who often use saws, pumps, fans, and generators while working at emergency situations.

It's a matter of the radio manufacturers writing new software for the radios and then uploading it to each radio, says Erwin. One company, EF Johnson, claims to have a fix for the high-noise issue, but Erwin says he wants to see how it does in field tests.

Only three radio manufacturer's radios are currently permitted on the state's network: Motorola, EF Johnson, and Kenwood. Erwin says he's confident that once one comes out with a solution, the others will quickly follow.

He says despite these concerns from departments in other states, tests completed by the city and county show the new radios did "as good as, if not better than, the current analog system." Erwin added that the clarity of the digital radios is a significant improvement over analog.

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