Portal to a strange new world
One day, officials of the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officials Texas chapter decided they had a problem. Plenty of end-users were attending the chapter’s annual meeting and conference, but not enough technical people. To combat this problem, they decided to develop a curriculum that would be compelling enough to attract RF technicians. They also decided it would be quite handy if the program prepared them for the future in some way. Even better would be a curriculum that ensured that they have a future.
Much is being said and written these days about the migration of mission-critical communications from an RF-centric world to one that will be dominated by IP technologies. Some believe the migration will require that the technicians of the future have skills that reflect both disciplines. Bill Keller, APCO Texas chapter immediate-past president, is one of the believers. Indeed, Keller thinks RF personnel who don’t develop IP skills will be left behind.
“We need to train and develop these guys, so that they’re able to keep their jobs,” he said. “The days of soldering transmitters onto a board and running coaxial cable, that’s not the way of the world anymore. We need to bring the radio guys into the IP world.”
Keller doesn’t think that will be too tough. While it is exceedingly difficult — if not impossible — to train an IT person on the intricacies of RF, training an RF person to handle IP is a much easier proposition, he said.
“I don’t know why it’s that way,” Keller said. “All I know is that it is.”
Keller turned to Carroll Hollingsworth, a Texas Chapter director who also is a director of the Radio Club of America. Serendipitously, Hollingsworth co-chairs the RCA’s education committee. Hollingsworth then turned to the other co-chair, Rich Biby, for help. Biby — developer of the SiteSafe RF exposure-modeling software a decade ago and currently publisher of Above Ground Level magazine, which is focused on the tower segment — is a big believer in the value of continuing education and is experienced in course development. He agrees with Keller that it’s easier to train RF people to handle IP — and he thinks he understands why.
“RF is more of an art form,” Biby said. “There’s so much to learn, and they’ve learned how to learn. Conversely, IP is more rote knowledge, and designing is more a case of connecting the dots.”
Biby also concurred with Keller’s assessment that RF technicians need to board the IP train. “They’re all going to be assimilated into this, whether they like it or not,” he said. “The RF guys have been resisting this for too long. If you want to have a job, you better do this.”
But what form should “this” take? The Keller-Hollingsworth-Biby triumvirate decided to put their collective toe in the water with a one-day seminar held at the APCO Texas Chapter’s annual meeting last summer in Galveston. They also made the crucial decision to solicit the help of an outside entity to develop the curriculum, the Electronic Technicians Association.
Their reason for doing so was simple: the ETA already had a training regimen in place and was willing to adapt it for this purpose. “It just made sense,” Keller said. “They’re experts in their field. Why re-invent the wheel?”
The course, taught by the ETA’s Tom Janca, covered only the basics of the IP world, focusing on the seven-layer Open System Interconnection, or OSI, reference model, which determines how packetized data is routed from one point to the next. “This course isn’t about doing radio over an IP system,” Biby said. “That comes next.” The end goal is to add courses on how to operate applications over an IP system — radio being one such application — and how to design and engineer an IP-based communications network, he said.
Plans already exist to bring the first course to APCO’s national conference in Houston next year, and to other regional events. Biby hopes the curriculum can be brought to local colleges and technical groups, as well.
However, before that happens, Hollingsworth said that the course will need to be tweaked based on the feedback from the Galveston participants. “It was a little over the head of some of them,” Hollingsworth said.
Keller agreed, describing the course as intense. “This was not a feel-good class,” he said. “The guys I talked with told me that it was hard and challenging. When you talk to them about OSI layers, their eyes glaze over a little.
“We’ll back off a little next year and try not to overwhelm them. We don’t want to scare anybody away.”
But Keller added that participants said the course provided information they needed. Hollingsworth said he received similar feedback. “It was quite well received. We’re very excited about this — it went exactly as we hoped it would,” Hollingsworth said.
Keller said that they were hoping for 25 participants, but 59 showed up. “It turned out to be a huge success,” he said.
As encouraging as the turnout was, even more buoying was the fact that, after the initial eyes-glazing-over period, the participants fairly quickly began to grasp the material. According to Keller, this not only bodes well for their individual futures but also for public safety communications and the first responders who rely on those systems.
“Their ability to adapt to a changing environment will be important,” he said.
Hollingsworth agreed, stating that the public-safety sector today is well stocked with personnel who grasp the nuances of IP technologies but lack RF-oriented knowledge.
“Most public-safety [communications] employees are ex-military, and today’s military doesn’t train them as technicians — it’s all part and equipment replacement, and it doesn’t go much beyond that,” he said.
Keller, whose background is in IP technology, said he knows exactly what Hollingsworth is talking about. “It is very difficult for me to troubleshoot and diagnose a radio,” he said. “I don’t have those skills.”
This is all well and good, but RF personnel are going to have to go beyond educating themselves regarding IP if they hope to execute the migration. They’re also going to have to changes their attitudes; specifically, they’re going to have to set aside their animosity towards those who they perceive as interlopers, according to Biby.
“I don’t understand why the radio guys hate the IT guys,” he said. “IP is a sexy technology that works.”
He added that public-safety organizations and their employees have an obligation to speed the migration to the IP future and make it as seamless as possible.
“Doing so will make better use of taxpayer dollars,” Biby said. “So far, they’ve done a lousy job of using technology and have lost sight of the public good. We need so much more than what RF can provide.”