Recently I wrote a column that questioned why we hear more about digital-radio enhancements for the fire service than we do about using multiband radios. I received a tremendous amount of feedback on the topic. Readers brought up important points about why multiband isn’t ready for service, including the fact that it only operates in one band at a time and is too expensive for public safety to afford.

Unsurprisingly, cost was a major concern. One reader commented that multiband vendors are 10 years late and $3,000 too expensive, saying it if they had come to market with Part 90 dual/multiband radios earlier, perhaps they would be on their second- or third-generation prototypes.

“I know of a Chinese manufacturer that finally came out with an affordable [analog] dual-band certified for Part 90,” the reader said. “They are cleaning up at $130 each.”

Because of the cost, another reader commented that users — not multiband manufacturers — have identified ways around radio communications gaps by preplanning, sharing radios, using portable cross-band repeaters, gateways and equipment rather than purchasing expensive and complex devices multiband radios for multiple personnel in the field.

“The vendors just don't get it, they keep wasting time and money on R&D to come up with these expensive pieces of equipment that are supposed to be the solutions to all of our problems when the truth is most government agencies can't afford equipment like this,” the reader said, pointing to Project 25 as a perfect example.

It’s a good point. Why should an agency spend $2,800 per radio for P25 technology when they can purchase a radio that will get the job done for less than $700? If agencies are not going to spend $2,800 per radio for P25, they definitely are not going to spend $5,000-plus per radio for multiband capability.

“In fact, many volunteer departments — which make up the majority of the fire service — can’t afford P25 and would rather use existing analog radios and invest in other equipment, such as tankers and bunker gear,” he said. “The price point just isn't there yet.”

“Please explain to me who out of my 45 volunteer firefighters gets the radio assuming I can come up with another $2,200 beyond my yearly budget line,” he said. “And who is that lucky individual going to talk to if we only have one radio...just saying.”

All one fire chief wants is a reliable, durable, affordable radio. He can’t afford to buy a portable radio for $5,000 within his current budget, which isn’t “improving anytime soon,” he said.

In addition, users can only listen to one frequency at a time with multibands. While the radio receiver can scan multiband channels, there is only one receiver and one transmitter and being able only to hear one channel at a time defeats the purpose of a multiband radio. In fact, readers agree with California State Firefighters' Association President Kevin Nida about carrying two radios, saying that at least with two different radios, users can listen to two different channels at a time. But if the multiband radio scans and stops on the 800 channel, users lose anything that may be said on the VHF channel as long as the 800 is still talking.

“That isn't interoperability,” the reader said. “It's a disaster waiting to happen if you miss an important message on the channel you can't hear.”

One reader showed support for my column, saying “I agree with you wholeheartedly.” He said he’s been trying to push manufacturers to make multiband radios for years. He works in a jurisdiction where systems range from VHF to 800 MHz from analog to digital P25, and then there are those areas with encryption and other systems like LTE. He hates having to carry five different radios, depending on the incident location.

“It is still such a shame the Big M and other companies still choose to make proprietary equipment just to make a sale and make it so only their radios have to be bought to work,” he wrote. “I thought the whole idea of the FCC's changes and 9/11 was so that we all can talk with each other.

“Greedy manufacturers all hell bent on the almighty dollar instead of saving lives,” the reader wrote.

On the other hand, another excused me for being out of touch, saying the rush to "better" digital radios has cost municipalities millions and left many with unreliable, unnecessarily complex radio systems.

“In many cases, the digital systems replaced an analog system that worked fine most of the time, certainly more than the problematic digital system,” he said. “Cities are laying off firefighters and police because they can’t afford to pay them. Meanwhile, you are beating the drum for them to start buying complex MBR's at $5k a copy. You are far out of touch with reality.”

There were so many comments that I can’t include them all here. But I would like to conclude with a reader’s comment that struck me as funny, but also straightforward. Radio vendors, are you listening?

WANTED: Radio for large multiagency incidents. Multiband radio shipped standard with:

  • Dual-band receive with independent volume control
  • Multiple PTT options
  • More emphasis on conventional rather than trunking
  • Front panel programming for conventional channels
  • Cloning of a single zone/group/bank (not entire radio)
  • Ability to build tactical/command group from pre-programmed channels/Talk-groups
  • Peer to Peer GPS position reporting without infrastructure required
  • AA "clamshell" battery
  • Ruggedized and water/slurry/sweat/rain/porta-pond resistant
  • VHF antenna that is flexible, not rigid
  • Antenna connection that does not pull out of radio with inductor in tow
  • As few interconnected PCB's as possible
  • Easily interchangeable audio accessories that do not require tools to change
  • Programming software that does not change every other week
  • Programming software that is backwards compatible
  • Programming software that can import MS Excel spreadsheet
  • Cost that does not require a bond issue on ballot

Yea, it's like asking for ice cream on the Sun.

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