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.