The devil, as always, is in the details
In the August print edition of Urgent Communications, Todd Perdieu, the manager of system solutions engineering for Harris RF Communications‘ Public Safety and Professional Communications Division, offers excellent advice on how to effectively execute a migration from a legacy analog system to a digital system. The key to it all, according to Perdieu, is developing a comprehensive strategic plan before the migration begins that contemplates the FCC’s narrowbanding mandate, whether trunking capability is necessary and whether the migration actually is needed, among other questions.
But even when the homework is done, things don’t always go according to plan. So says Joe Kitchen, the chief of the Bath Township (Ohio) Fire Department. I interviewed Kitchen recently for a story in sister publication Fire Chief about an in-classroom ambulance simulator at Rhodes State College in Lima, Ohio, where Kitchen serves as chair of the two-year college’s EMS education department. During this conversation it tumbled out that Allen County, Ohio, in which Bath Township is located, is in the process of switching to digital from analog. According to Kitchen, they’ve encountered a few bumps in the road.
For example, timing has been an issue. Currently, only about half of the departments in the county are on the new system and several of Bath Township’s mutual-aid partners have yet to join, which has forced Kitchen’s department to keep its VHF system going.
“We have 13 departments in county, and we couldn’t just flip the switch at noon one day and everybody is up and running. We had to phase it in,” Kitchen said, adding that there also have been some training issues, for both firefighters and dispatchers.
Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is that not every firefighter will be given a digital radio due to budget constraints.
“Unfortunately, all local fire departments are having funding problems. The grant was significant, and it did allow us to purchase enough radios for us to be operational, but we’re going from a department of 35 firefighters who all had personal radios down to about half that,” Kitchen said. “So, we’ll send a crew in with one radio. From a safety standpoint, that is a concern — you’d hate to see a firefighter fall through the floor without a radio.” Kitchen said the county is looking for ways to augment what it received in federal money for this project.
Kitchen said his firefighters were disappointed to learn that they wouldn’t have personal radios, but added that he explained that the department would strategically allocate the radios they do have with the mindset of keeping them as safe as possible.
“We’re a combination department [including both career and volunteer firefighters]. The entire full-time staff, and the entire officer staff, has a radio,” Kitchen said. “Each piece of apparatus has several portable radios on them. If we have two guys on the roof doing ventilation, we’re going to make sure that crew has a radio. If we have two entry teams, both will have a radio.
“We’re going to do everything we can to shuffle the radios around,” he said. “In the meantime, we’re going to continue to find ways to fund this program, because the ultimate goal is for everyone to have two-way communication.”
I asked Kitchen whether the dealer with which the county worked had adequately explained what they were getting themselves into. He said he had no complaints. “I think they did [provide enough education],” Kitchen said. “If I had to do it over again, as fire chief, I would have worked harder, studied the materials and did my own research, which is something I didn’t do.”
While more information always is better than less, especially when making big decisions, I think Kitchen is being a little too hard on himself. No matter how much homework one does, one never can predict every outcome or contingency. You simply gather as much information as you can and then make the best decision you can make based on what you know at the time. Then you adapt. Isn’t that what life’s all about?
Despite all of this, Kitchen is thrilled that the county is moving to digital technology.
“I’m super impressed with the clarity — it’s phenomenal,” he said. “I also like that, when I’m on the radio, I’m the only one talking. I can’t be walked over by somebody with a taller antenna. You’re locked into that channel and I think that’s going to be outstanding. That’s going to save firefighters’ lives.”
Kitchen said that his department hasn’t had the digital radios long enough to have experienced any problems in high-noise environments, as some departments allegedly have. Nevertheless, the department has been proactive on this issue, instructing firefighters during their training on the devices to turn their bodies in a certain way and to shield their microphones to avoid such problems.
Kitchen said the county is fully aware of the potential for trouble in this regard but — given the time, effort and expense that has been expended on this migration — wants to avoid a knee-jerk reaction.
“Hopefully, this isn’t going to stifle us, because I don’t know which way we would go from here,” he said. I can’t see that there’s any turning back from moving ahead digitally. At this point, we have so much … invested that we have to find a way to make this work.”
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