Recently I spoke with Tom Chirhart, program manager at the Department of Homeland Security's Science & Technology Directorate, and Dennis Martinez, CTO of Harris’ RF communications division, about the next step in multiband radio development: testing the company’s Unity XG-100 multiband radio. This is the second radio tested by the directorate, the first being Thales Communications’ Liberty radio.

I asked them both about recent comments readers left on Fire Chief and Urgent Communications' websites after I posed the question, “Why aren’t more people asking about multiband?” Some readers praised the technology, while other scoffed at it, noting its high cost and its inability to meet the fire service’s needs. Unsurprisingly, Chirhart and Martinez see a bright future for the multiband radio, including being used by the fire service. But each provides slightly different view about how it can be best used on the fireground.

Why were you testing the radio’s capabilities in a high-noise environment?

Chirhart: The fire service has identified its criticality because of the high-noise environment in which they operate in — being at the pumps at the pumper and the engine noise, to the chainsaws they use on the roof during fires. … They have a critical need and a concern over the interference caused by using [radios] in a digital environment, especially since they’ve had such great success in the conventional modes.
Martinez: The Unity radio has technology that we pulled from our DoD Falcon III family of products, whereby the radio needs to operate in a very high-noise environment, so we pulled that technology into the public-safety radios. So that was the approach. The radio incorporates that very advanced technology through the use of multiple microphone inputs to perform noise cancellation.

By the way, the reason this issue even comes up is that we observed over the last several years that digital voice-coding technology, such as that used in P25 standards, exhibit certain vulnerabilities in high-background-noise environments. The firefighting industry, in particular, recognized early on this potential challenge. We believed it was important to address that concern.

Why carry two radios? Why can’t multibands let users hear more than one frequency at once?

Chirhart: It sounds like a software issue. The hardware side of it is that you would have to have a headset on and have the information coming in from multiple sources. Other [industries] that monitor multiple frequencies use a headset environment. Particularly in the aviation world, you’ll have a headset with different internal communications, as well as air-traffic control information piping through their headsets. That’s feasible. I don’t see any issue there.
Martinez: Narrowing this discussion to the fire service … certainly within the jurisdiction, the common practice would be deploying a certain frequency band. And, therefore, a single-band radio would be adequate for addressing those day-to-day operations within their jurisdictions. The challenge occurs when a firefighter has to cross jurisdictional boundaries, where you may have a different frequency band deployed; for example, a neighboring jurisdiction has UHF frequencies [and] your district uses VHF frequencies. In that case, a single band wouldn’t work. So the idea of a multiband radio in this aspect means a firefighter can be dispatched to a neighboring jurisdiction and bring the radio they are already trained on.

If you look at large fires that occur in California, as an example, there you have firefighters coming from many jurisdictions, and you also have federal, state and local firefighters. So now you have different levels of government operating on different frequency bands. There’s a case where a multiband radio being used by all personnel would be able to operate across all frequencies in use.

Why don’t multibands have squelch adjustment?

Chirhart: The older radio community is very familiar with the adjustable squelch, especially in the analog days. That is a nice feature to have. Depending on the software feature provided with the multiband radio, you set a threshold for your squelch, and that’s one of the limitations. We will be identifying those issues within our final report from the user community, where they express that. They like the ability to adjust the squelch.
Martinez: The Unity radio has squelch adjustment. We do offer that.

Were fire agencies involved in providing feedback for the directorate’s report?

Chirhart: The fire service [personnel] were some of the most active participants in the identification of requirements of the multiband radio because of their unique, extreme work environment — everything from the wet and the cold to the extreme heat. The fire service identified some [critical areas of improvement]. … Everybody played a critical role, and now there’s an opportunity to test it in their work environment and tell us how it performs.

What do you say to those who say the fire service doesn’t need a multiband radio?

Chirhart: They probably haven’t dressed up in all of the equipment and gone out there. When you have a major incident — for example, oftentimes the Department of Defense [DoD] is involved in wildland fires, because they have soldiers that can assist. Well, the DoD operates on a totally different band; they have the 138–144 MHz and 380–400 MHz. So, if a firefighter company is out there using VHF, how would they communicate with the DoD? There are a lot of those scenarios.
Martinez: We say there certainly are scenarios where that is true; there are jurisdictions that operate perfectly fine with single-band radios. Then there are those cases where the multiband radio would be an important tool to improve their ability to be dispatched to other jurisdictions and large events. It’s a case where maybe one size doesn’t fit all.

Are multiband radios the answer to interoperability?

Chirhart: I won’t go as far as to brand the multiband as the solution — the magic bullet — for all interoperability. But I sure would say it’s a great tool in the toolbox. Our goal, of course, when we initiated the [competitive multiband] contract, was to insight competition within our manufacturers. At IWCE, I met with quite a few of them, and I challenged those who are not actively in the competition to enter the market. One company, who’s not yet in the marketplace, told me that their goal was to develop a $3,500 version of the multiband radio, so it is competitive with the digital.
Martinez: It’s one component of interoperability. We pursued a strategy that two things are really necessary. We have to have the ability to connect systems together, so that’s enabling interoperability within the network itself. Then, secondarily, you actually need radios that can operate in these different networks. We believe interoperability has to have both components of the solution: network connectivity and multiband radios. The two together form a pretty comprehensive capability towards interoperability.

What do you say to those who doubt the radio will ever be affordable?

Chirhart: I remember some people had concerns about the cost, and I was asked that at IWCE. Back in about 1994, I bought my first computer. It was a 486 Dx2 66. And with a printer and monitor, I paid over $3,500 for it. … It’s incredible what I can get for $500 today versus what I spent all that time ago. So I think, as competition increases, the costs have to come down.
Martinez: The pricing of radios is based typically on the feature set the customer is purchasing. So, if you look at a high-tier single-band radio at typical price points for those kinds of equipment, and then you look at an entry-level position of a multiband radio — you’ll find they are in the same range. So, the multiband radio has obviously a higher end for a fully featured [model] across all bands, all encryption modes. … That will obviously have a higher price point than a single-band radio. But there is actually a [price] range where the two intersect..

Are the multiband radios from your company still running around $5,000?

Martinez: List prices start at $3,500. Customer feature sets and discounts will determine selling price.