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Gimme a radio that works

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The other night I took a break from work and checked in with my peeps on Twitter, where I quickly found  a ongoing discussion of fire ground radio communications between a couple of my favorite fire tweeters, @garytx and  @thefiretracker2.

It was refreshing to talk about something other than the benefits of social media. It is widely known in the fire service that some departments that “upgraded” their emergency radio communication systems found that instead of fixing things they made things even worse, the classic example of the cure being worse than the disease. Dave Statter @statter911 noted this ongoing issue early last year .

Our fast paced conversation was started by a newspaper article describing problems with a regional radio system in California. I’d mention the specific article, but simply typing in the words digital, radio, system, problem brings up a bunch of links to articles from around the country talking about similar problems, including this one.  The chief complainants are mostly front line troops, who rely on their radios like a climber relies on a rope – an electronic lifeline.

Several years ago the Feds adopted new standards and grant funding requirements mandating purchase and use of radio equipment that has to be configured a certain way (called “P-25”).  They are also pushing us hard to purchase and configure systems so everyone can talk to everyone else on the same system(interoperability). As a result, electronic snake oil sales reps. aggressively pursued us to throw away our old equipment (which while old, was reliable during crisis) and buy new equipment and unbelievably expensive infrastructure to provide the necessary coverage.  I listened to these presentations and walked away shaking my head every time. It doesn’t take a scientist to figure out that the higher the radio frequency the more prone the signal is to interference.  Even a farting fly can screw up a 800 MHz broadcast.  So, you have to stick up a bunch of repeater towers to relay the flaky signal, which translates to big money in my terrain challenged region. Shortly after these systems went online the complaints about lack of coverage started. How are these problems being addressed?  You guessed it… put up more towers…$$$$$$$

Another problem that surfaced around 2006 is a result of converting to radios that transmit a digital signal. Low and behold, the digital gizmo that translates voice to digital signal inside the radios gets confused when the user speaks in a high noise environment, converting the message into “gobbledygook”. The thing that slays me is no one has fixed this problem from a technology perspective.  The International Association of Fire Chiefs issued a recommendation guide on how to “get by”, but after 5 years the problem remains.

Regarding interoperability, we determined that interoperability is critical during a big mess. But, does that mean we need tactical folks from diverse response realms jumping on each other’s tactical frequencies?  Nope. We chose to go another route.  Today’s radios – even non P-25 compliant types – are easily programmable in the field.  We also have “little black boxes” that can connect disparate radio frequencies in the field, giving key Command officers, chiefs and directors the ability to coordinate remotely if necessary. We still prefer the old fashioned way of sitting down and having a conversation as the preferred method of communicating across jurisdictional/functional lines.  In my simple world, “Interoperability” starts with a handshake, relies on frequent conversation and coordination and ends with a pledge to help each other next time.

Am I the only one who finds it ironic that we can talk to someone on the other side of the world via SM , but can’t talk to someone on the other side of the fire ground?  Give me a radio that allows me to talk from Point A to Point B without having to go through P-25.

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Comments - Add Yours

  • Gary Oldham

    Interestingly, last week I spoke at a School Safety conference at the Colorado state capitol on the topic of interoperability between schools and the traditional first responder community. One of the things I mentioned was on example of pervasive interoperability in schools – that’s our kids using social media and SMS. Doesn’t matter what brand cell phone, GSM, CDMA, TDMA, etc., our kids (and of course other adopters) have instant and worldwide interoperability, even with automatic translation into many other languages. But we in the public safety community have much bigger challenges. Even with technical solutions, some fairly simple, many complex, most expensive, we then have our human factor issues to deal with. Like using common terminology and clear text. This isn’t new… and wasn’t new on 9/11. I worked on Project FIRESCOPE from the late 70s to the late 90s working on interoperability, even though we didn’t yet call it that, and I’ve been working on it since. Interoperability was identified as a major public safety issue in 1970 after the Laguna Fire in San Diego County. Which if nothing else means our limited progress spans 40+ years, not “just” a decade. Another example I use is my placing a phone call to another country, let’s just say Iceland. When the other party picks up the phone, we’ve achieved technical interoperability. But unless we both speak some common language, we have a human factor interoperability problem. It’s not much different with radios when we use different terminology, jargon, or, God forbid, codes. We (still) have a long way to go, baby.

    • chiefb2

      Very well said G.O! The seasoned voice of reason speaketh!

About chiefb2

Retired fire chief,Type 3 AHIMT IC, PIO. Current industrial services safety professional, social media emergency management disciple (no, I'm not a "guru"). Crisis communications consultant. Dad with an open wallet.