The International Association of Fire Chiefs was forced to respond to criticism of its recently released handbook that promotes use of Nextel Communications' push-to-talk service and 800 MHz trunking as effective methods to achieve interoperable communications.

Steve Rauter, deputy chief of the Lisle-Woodridge Fire District in Lisle, Ill., said the document places far too much emphasis on Nextel and 800 MHz trunking. “It's a glorified advertisement for Nextel,” Rauter said. “In the Chicago metro area, our experience is that Nextel is not a reliable mission-critical tool that you can use to do all of the stuff that [the handbook] suggests.”

There also is a big debate, in the aftermath of Nextel's merger with Sprint, as to how long Motorola will continue to support iDEN, the P2T platform used by Nextel to provide its Direct Connect service, Rauter said.

“They're finding that CDMA is far more efficient than TDMA for a lot of things, and most cellular companies are moving toward CDMA than TDMA. So the question after the merger is, what is the next handset going to look like?”

Despite Motorola's insistence that it would continue supplying Nextel with iDEN products through 2007 and plans to introduce iDEN handsets over the next 12 months, Rauter's concern is legitimate, according to Iain Gillott, founder of iGillott Research. In a story originally published in sister publication Telephony that also appeared in the March edition of MRT, Gillott said that “[Motorola] has shown in the past they will ditch an industry if they're not making money at it, like they did with paging.”

Rauter is equally concerned about the emphasis on 800 MHz trunking, which he said Washington is hard-selling to the nation's fire chiefs — ”Who are not technical folks, to be honest with you” — as something they must have to achieve interoperability.

“We have done preliminary channel-loading studies on this already that indicate there is not enough spectrum available in 800 and 700 to facilitate interoperability [via trunking] for every agency in the state of Illinois,” Rauter said.

There are other concerns. Wayne Drown, chief of the Silver Bluffs Volunteer Fire Department in Aiken County, S.C., categorized trunking systems as the “most costly answer to interoperability problems.”

The criticism did not come solely from the fire service. Irvin Lichtenstein, a mission-critical communications consultant and IEEE senior member, said sharing radio frequencies and modulation modes is the simplest method of achieving interoperable communications, but trunk controllers don't allow such sharing.

“You are required to be programmed into a common talk group by radio unit ID, to share encryption keys and methods and to have the interoperable group be scanned constantly by all services involved,” he said. “In many regional systems, the cops won't do this and in one area flatly refused to allow the fire service to talk directly to police radios, despite the identical configuration of the radios, which shared infrastructure.” Furthermore, Lichtenstein called 800 MHz propagation in many areas “questionable.”

Handbook author Bill Pessemier, the IAFC's executive communications systems adviser who also is the chief of the Littleton, Colo., fire department, said the handbook “clearly is not written solely from an 800 MHz perspective,” although it presents three case studies based on 800 MHz technology.

Pessemier also said the IAFC's position is that Nextel's Direct Connect service is just fine as a supplemental service but is not endorsed as a replacement for a primary land mobile radio system, something that is made clear on page 15 of the handbook.

“There are some places that have experimented with [Nextel as a replacement service], and they're pretty happy with it, but it's not something the IAFC is endorsing,” he said.

Pessemier added that it is only natural that Nextel is mentioned prominently in the handbook because the carrier is “out in front” of other commercial wireless carriers in terms of providing products, services or capacities for public safety.

“Nextel has done more along those lines than any of the other commercial providers,” he said. “What we've told people is that, if Nextel works for you, great, use them. If somebody else works for you, use them.”

Susan Kalish, IAFC director of corporate marketing, attempted to dispel speculation that Nextel is featured in the handbook because the carrier paid for it. She said that while Nextel paid for the printing and promotion, the carrier had no involvement in the content creation. Kalish also noted that that the IAFC shopped the project to other potential sponsors, but Nextel was the only one to step up.

“Interoperability has been a problem for a long time, and the IAFC has wanted to do something like [the handbook] for a long time but never had the resources,” she said. “So this seemed like a perfect fit to get outside support to put together educational materials.”

Nevertheless, Kalish seemed resigned to the fact that Nextel represents a flash point for many in public safety.

“People either love Nextel or they hate it,” she said.

Mission element Communications system
The breakdown of a typical interoperable communications system. Subsystems can be linked via integrated consoles or a gateway system
Command and control 800 MHz
Operations 800 MHz
Logistics Direct connect
Admin/finance Cellular
Law enforcement VHF
Medical UHF
Source: IAFC