LAS VEGAS — Fire chiefs and other public-safety leaders must upgrade their radio systems to meet the Federal Communications Commission’s narrowbanding mandate by Jan. 1, 2013, or face fines, warned Rick Smith, president of RS Consultants, during a session about incident command communications at the International Wireless Communications Expo. Many leaders have lobbied for a deadline extension because of economic woes, but the FCC has stated that it will not extend the deadline. So agencies must find the money to upgrade or fully replace their systems —including repeaters, mobiles and portables, and base stations — to be narrowband-compliant.

“There’s no choice in this manner,” Smith said.

Smith said there are Federal Emergency Management Administration grants that can provide agencies with the funding needed to upgrade their systems.

“If they have a grant writer, they really need to go out and research this,” he said.

But even if departments can’t find grants, they do have to find a way to pay for narrowbanding. “If there are no grants available, it will have to come out of their general budget,” Smith said. “They are going to have to look at things and put other purchases on hold. Meaning the fire engines are going to have to last a little longer so they can pay for this mandated communications upgrade.”

Smith said leadership should use a consultant to analyze their current radio system and determine the agencies with which they closely work in order to ensure interoperability. In addition, if smaller departments partner with large agencies they may be able to piggyback on discounted deals from vendors based on purchasing volume.

Finally, Smith said public safety agencies should make communication equipment upgrades a priority.

“Don’t skimp on communications,” he warned. “We spend so much money on equipment — making sure we do our dailies on engines, checking tires, fuel, oil, windshields — but maintenance on radio systems is crucial. If you don’t keep up with maintenance, your radio systems may not work or be as reliable as needed during an incident.”

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