Red skies and green lights
Two public safety agencies whose communications systems must meet the challenges posed by heavy tourism and volatile seasonal weather discover that emergency preparedness can hang by a dead battery.
Steinberg is communications manager for the Advanced Charger Technology division of Enrev, Norcross, GA.
Emergency preparedness is a major component of public safety, and emergency radios provide a critical link that enables those plans to run smoothly. An increasing number of city and regional governments are upgrading radio communications equipment, including 800MHz or 900MHz trunking systems. The goals of these upgrades are:
*to increase the reach of communications within a region. *to expand interoperability to include more local agencies (i.e., linking fire and police to sheriff, military, waterworks, electrical, ambulance, etc.). *to replace outdated systems before they become obsolete. *to keep up with growth. *to implement lessons learned from previous large-scale disasters. *to comply with E 9-1-1 and Project 25 standards.
This need for quick response times and dependable communications has increased demand for two-way radio battery chargers. Two public safety communications officials, one in the British West Indies and the other in Florida, faced similar challenges to their communications preparedness-weather and tourism. They did their homework and researched communications and emergency response. They attended APCO conferences and consulted colleagues and industry professionals. Both developed plans for emergencies that also work under everyday circumstances, and both looked at the short- and long-term costs. They also included battery chargers that use a dynamic electrochemical waveform technology, called Enrev, in their proposals for new trunking system equipment. (See “It’s a Portable Life, But Things Can Get Better,” MRT, June 1999.) Solutions to battery problems that have plagued radio communications are becoming an up-front priority in system acquisitions. Their role as the “weak link” in critical communications will be tolerated no longer.
Crown colony communications The Cayman Islands, located in the Caribbean Sea, are known for their hospitality, breathtaking natural beauty and incredible coral reefs. A haven for tourists as well as businesses welcomed by the Islands’ tax-friendly policies, the three islands that make up the Caymans are home to people from all over the world. The tropical climate responsible for the Cayman Islands’ attractiveness is the same climate that can brew up a nasty tropical storm, or even a hurricane, with little warning. Progressive public safety planning to meet these challenges has led to the introduction of E9-1-1 services (which first required street naming and mapping), development of a comprehensive emergency plan for the hurricane-prone islands and the installation of a new trunked communications system.
The Caymans’ emergency plan is overseen and implemented by a steering committee of 12 members, each directing one response division. The committee members are responsible for ongoing preparedness training and immediate implementation in case of an emergency. They are also responsible for staying in contact with one another at all times during an emergency, which makes radio communications a critical component of the plan. Telecommunications Director Michael Kiron also oversees the communications committee.
“During preparations for Hurricane Mitch, we realized we needed something to increase the dependability of batteries because in the field, batteries go dead in high-need situations. The Activator chargers would have definitely been helpful then,” said Kiron. “We’re responsible for the entire communications system and infrastructure for three islands, two radio systems and over 1,000 radios. I have to look at emergency preparedness when we do anything new, as we have to be prepared to respond to any kind of major event, be it a hurricane or other disaster.”
Kiron and Cayman Islands Fire Officer Rosworth McLaughlin attended APCO ’98 in Albuquerque, NM, to look for ways to improve the Caymans’ communications system. Familiar with battery problems, and those that plague firefighters in particular, McLaughlin introduced Kiron to ACT chargers. Since that time, the Caymans’ fire, police and telecommunications division have each placed orders for subsequent units, and Kiron recently ordered Personal Activators for each member of the steering committee to assure maximum readiness in the absolute minimum time.
“Our radio system was acquired nearly 10 years ago,” Kiron said. “We had so many bad batteries and batteries that weren’t providing the right amount of capacity. After only a short time in service, the Activator charger helped us rejuvenate enough capacity to bring low-capacity batteries up to some pretty high ratings. We were able to recycle more batteries instead of throwing them away and buying new ones. Normally, we must spend about $1,000-$2000 on batteries per month. If we can reduce those costs on a yearly basis, it would be great.”
Since the first units were acquired, Cayman Islands police and fire departments have come to appreciate the chargers for their fast charge times and the dependability of equal capacity between charges. They also liked the fact that it eliminated the need for “managing” batteries between charges. Kiron ordered a variety of adapters for the six-bay charger he placed in the mobile communications unit, so it could be used by multiple departments in the case of an emergency.
The Cayman Islands are in the process of upgrading the existing Motorola trunking system to a digital platform, which will eventually cover departments on all three islands. Kiron will specifyActivator chargers as part of the upgrade.
“Right now, we’re using the product to save money,” said Kiron. “The more uses for the units, the more applications, the better the return. Even if it didn’t save money, it is a great tool for emergency communications. Let’s face it, without communications, you can’t coordinate an emergency.”
The chargers provide multiple uses. They also format new NiCd radio batteries in less than two hours and recharge in about 30 minutes. They save money by conditioning batteries as they charge, extending battery life three to five times, maintaining consistently high capacity for as many as 2,000 cycles, and they eliminate the need for costly and time-consuming battery maintenance programs.
Gulf Coast communications Ben Holycross knows that no emergency response is better than a well-planned one. Holycross, radio systems manager for Polk County, FL, is a veteran of two hurricane clean-ups who manages communications for more than 20 agencies every day.
Polk County is in the process of installing a new 800MHz trunking system that will unite more than 20 county agencies and will eventually include many loc al government agencies within the county. As part of the changeover, Polk County, the city of Lakeland and the state of Florida will co-locate on a new radio tower in Lakeland. As part of the plan, the county has also upgraded its backup communications system.
The region’s annual “Sun and Fun” event attracts more than 700,000 visitors to Lakeland, a town of 500,000. This year, “Sun and Fun” coincided with the removal of the existing Lakeland radio tower’s service, creating a necessary opportunity to test the county’s new emergency backup communications system. The backup system features an Aluma Tower trailer that carries an 8 3 8-foot equipment shelter and a 100-foot telescoping tower, and supports a five-channel portable trunking system that can communicate with military frequencies. The backup system also includes primary and secondary mobile communications units and an emergency operations center (EOC), with two six-bay Maintainor charging stations at each location. New radios for the 800MHz system were shipped ahead of schedule to be available for the special event, and preparations included programming radios and charging batteries for all public safety users. (Formatting new batteries took less than two hours with the Maintainors, instead of the usual 16-24 hours.) Holycross considered the “trial run” to be a success. “I’ve provided radio communications services after Hurricanes Andrew and Opal,” Holycross said. “Whatever I learned from those operations has gone into the planning of Polk County’s emergency services program. The pitfall in an emergency situation has always been the failure of backup batteries stored on chargers for long periods of time. After using the Maintainor for six months, we know it can store batteries for that long, and they’ll still be dependable in an emergency. Other systems couldn’t provide that back up.
“When faced with the need for public safety communications for the ‘Sun and Fun’ event, as well as the ‘fire index’ approaching the critical mark, the ability to have and maintain charged batteries to support portable radio operations is a necessity,” Holycross said. “There needs to be a way to charge batteries whenever and wherever they’re needed and to have a large number of charged batteries available for emergencies at all times. We’ve installed six Maintainors each in two containers, so we can take them on site wherever we go with our portable mobile radio system.”
Holycross’ department fitted the chargers into rolling storage cases for quick portability. Each case holds six, six-bay chargers mounted on a plywood backboard above a six-outlet power strip. The single plug and cord for the strip exits the bottom of the case, so the system can be plugged into a wall outlet while closed. The chargers are designed to keep back-up radio batteries available at all times by providing patented charge and periodic cycling, assuring that fully charged, dependable batteries are available in times of peak need.
The unique Polk County setup enables 36 batteries to be charged and ready for any situation. A fully loaded case can be unplugged, covered and quickly moved to the necessary location when needed. The case can be plugged back in on location, and the fast chargers can put any radio back into communication in minutes. (The Maintainor charges a 1,200mAh, NiCd, two-way radio battery in 30 minutes.)
Conclusion Whether you’re planning for emergencies or for day-to-day communications, the dependability of a radio system is affected by a variety of complications. From spectrum availability to antenna placement, from equipment selection to user training, there are many elements required for a smooth-running system. One common denominator is that all radios depend on batteries, and those batteries must be reliable. Chargers that use Enrev technology have finally eliminated the one weak link that has crippled even the most expensive radio systems. The benefits to telecommunications professionals are fewer battery problems, reduced radio complaints, user-friendly charging and the immeasurable benefit of increased user safety.