"Buzz" is usually a good thing. Buzz means that things are happening. Buzz means excitement — or a new Toy Story movie is coming out.

Current buzz is all about broadband. Every day there's more broadband news, analysis or legislation.

Unfortunately, sometimes buzz covers up other important stories. One such story concerns the upcoming changes by insurance company FM Global to the intrinsically safe (IS) standard for land-mobile radios. Those guidelines include a reduction of maximum power output for IS units from 3 watts to 0.5 watts for Class 1, Division 1 devices as of Jan. 1, 2012.

Existing units will be grandfathered, but new units bought after Dec. 31, 2012*, would need to meet the standard to be considered intrinsically safe, and therefore receive insurance protection. The potential impact of this new standard is extremely widespread. While most folks associate IS radios with firefighters in burning buildings, there are other uses, too. For example, IS radios typically are used in garages where acetylene torches are used for welding. These locations also will be impacted.

The concerns are over the size of the battery in these units, and the size of contacts that might produce sparks. The new standard is the same as that used in Europe; however, most of those systems are TETRA-based systems that use more sites than the typical LMR system.

Should the standard be maintained, many municipalities will face tough choices, including whether to:

  • Do a complete system redesign.
  • Add sites.
  • Make Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) a requirement in many buildings.

The DAS issue is an intriguing one. Green-building initiatives already may be prohibiting first responders' in-building coverage. The new IS limitation could provide a further impediment to such coverage, making DAS even more important

This issue is terribly ill-timed. Many municipalities recently have purchased (or been given) new radios pursuant to 800 MHz rebanding, VHF/UHF rebanding, or Project 25 upgrades. These radios typically have significant life-cycles. If this new standard is a wise move — certainly subject to debate — it would have been so much more helpful to have known a few years ago.

Conversely, it would seem like these municipalities have little to worry about, as they will not have to meet the standard until the next round of radio purchases. Still, the long-term impact of the new standard is huge.

The goal of having the same standard in Europe and the U.S. shouldn't be the only rationale for the change. I am unaware of a significant issue necessitated the change, and it would behoove LMR interests to lobby FM Global to maintain the current. There is some time to do this, but not a lot.

I have seen what fire in a garage can do. My father owned a chain of auto garages. One of his employees accidentally dropped a metal bucket filled with gasoline. The result was a seriously burned employee and a burned-out shop. So, I am sensitive to the importance of IS standards. However, it also is important that standards be adopted that are based upon real risk, not just conformance with European standards that are based on different technologies.

Intrinsically safe may not have much buzz today, but it is just as important as the issues that are getting most of the attention right now — and should be treated as such.

Corrected 10/14/2010

What do you think? Tell us in the comment box below.

Alan Tilles is counsel to numerous entities in the private radio and Internet industries. He is a partner in the law firm of Shulman Rogers Gandal Pordy & Ecker and can be reached at atilles@srgpe.com.

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