On a daily basis, first responders risk life and limb under trying circumstances to save others’ lives and property. In such dangerous environments, they should not have to worry whether their tools of the trade — for instance, the radios they depend upon for communications — will create additional hazards.

This is why the “intrinsically safe” standard from FM Approvals is so valued in the industry. By meeting the testing needed to qualify for the intrinsically-safe moniker, equipment is supposed to be able to operate in the most trying environments without failing or combusting.

But the intrinsically safe standard governing LMR radios in the U.S. will be changing at the beginning of 2012, according to multiple industry sources. Apparently, the change is not being driven by any indication that the current standards are unsafe — in fact, current intrinsically safe gear will be grandfathered. Instead, the change is being done so that the U.S. standard will align with the standard in Europe, sources say.

The desire for a worldwide standard is understandable, but many fear that its implementation in the U.S. could result in added expenses and potentially greater danger for the first responders that depend on their LMR radios as a communications lifeline.

Under the new FM guidelines, intrinsically safe radios will need to use less power than the current 3 watts that is standard in the industry. Exactly how much less appears to be a matter of debate, as the implications of the FM Approval proposal have to be tracked through footnotes from multiple standards from at least two other organizations.

In Europe, this is not a big deal, because the dominant technology — TETRA — uses a cellular-like architecture with lots of low sites and devices that do not use a lot of power. However, in the U.S., LMR systems are designed with fewer sites that require more power from the handheld device for the signal to reach a network tower.

If vendors are forced to lower the power of portable radios to meet the intrinsically safe standard, the impact could be felt in several areas.

Manufacturers would have to develop new handheld radios, and new models typically are more expensive — something cash-strapped public-safety agencies do not want to hear, particularly in this economy. Having lower-powered devices means the effective coverage areas shrink, unless more sites are installed, which is another unwanted expense and may not be possible with the public’s not-in-my-backyard attitude toward towers. Finally, fire departments that opt to use simplex channels at an incident could experience diminished signal strength, particularly if the user is in a building.

It may be that these possibilities were overlooked by officials at FM Approvals or that those in the U.S. LMR industry are misinterpreting what appears to be a tangled web of standards. Either way, the details of the intrinsically safe standard need to be clarified quickly, so manufacturers and public-safety entities know exactly what must be done. Meanwhile, officials at FM Approvals should reconsider whether the proposed standard is a good idea and whether additional time beyond 2012 is needed, if they insist on implementing the standard in the U.S.

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