If it’s not broken, why fix it?
During the past decade, operators of land-mobile radio (LMR) networks have faced two major changes to their systems mandated by the FCC: reconfiguration of the 800 MHz band and narrowbanding of the UHF and VHF frequencies. Both initiatives have proved to be significant undertakings, with rebanding likely taking at least a decade and many LMR operators expressing concern that they will not be able to meet the FCC’s Jan. 1, 2013, deadline for narrowbanding, despite having 15 years’ notice of the requirement.
But a potentially even greater challenge awaits LMR operators intent on maintaining intrinsically safe (IS) radio systems, because the new standard — set to become effective on Jan. 1, 2012, a year before the narrowbanding deadline — for handheld devices promises to force changes to IS handsets that most engineers believe can be met only by reducing the power levels of portable radios significantly. Instead of transmitting at 3 to 6 watts as LMR radios do today in the U.S., the new IS radios likely will support power outputs of 0.5 to 2 watts, according to multiple industry sources.
For LMR operators in the U.S., this is problematic. Not only would the change mean replacing portable radios that may have been purchased recently to satisfy rebanding or narrowbanding requirements — at a time when money is scarce for enterprises and public-safety agencies — but it also would mean redesigning entire LMR systems with additional base-station sites to maintain the same portable coverage for IS radios that is enjoyed today.
These realities translate to considerable added expense to existing LMR systems, as a model from Pinellas County, Fla., indicates. But even these kinds of projections reflect only the basic costs, because securing additional sites for an LMR network can be extremely difficult, said Fred Moloznik, senior director of product safety and regulatory compliance for Motorola Solutions.
“You can’t go out and say, ‘I think I’m going to add five sites,’ and just do it,” Moloznik said. “There are spectrum considerations and frequency-coordination considerations, so that’s another concern customers have.”
Furthermore, many firefighters and oil-refinery personnel rely regularly on direct radio-to-radio communications, so as not to be dependent on a network. The expected reduction in transmission power for new IS radios would mean reduced range in such instances and would make in-building communications much more challenging, according to several industry sources.
Given these negative impacts and the fact that there has been no indication that current intrinsically safe LMR radios have created any safety issues, many question whether a new IS standard is needed.
“I hate to use a cliché, but it seems to be a solution in search of a problem,” said Doug Aiken, chief of Lakes Region Mutual Fire Aid in New Hampshire. “Nobody I’ve talked to understands why we need to make these changes.
“It’s just very frustrating. If it’s not broken, why are we fixing it? I don’t understand what the rush is to harmonize [IS standards] with Europe.”
Most LMR operators only learned of the impact of the proposed intrinsic-safety standards last summer, giving them less than 18 months to comply, while they were given several years’ notice to meet rebanding and narrowbanding mandates. With this in mind — as well as the fact that no LMR products are available in the U.S. for purchase that meet the new IS standard — they want implementation of the IS standard delayed or waived completely.
Meanwhile, officials for FM Approvals and Underwriters Laboratories (UL) note that manufacturers have known since 2006 that the intrinsic-safety standard was being changed but opted to ignore it and not notify their customers. In fact, they say that the IS standard was supposed to become effective on Jan. 1, 2010, but a two-year extension was granted, resulting in the current 2012 implementation date.
Caught in the middle of the debate between the manufacturers and the standards bodies are LMR network directors, who find themselves in the unpleasant predicament of having to tell their company or government employer that the recent time and money investments in rebanding or narrowbanding may have to be redone to meet the new IS standards.
“People have put their jobs on the line with a lot of money at stake, and you have this [intrinsic-safety standard] that’s totally irrational,” said Greg Kunkle, a partner in the Washington, D.C., law firm of Keller and Heckman. “They’re between a rock and a hard place on this one.”
Tangled web of standards
At the heart of the controversy is intrinsic safety, a time-honored standard certified by UL and FM Approvals that is designed to ensure that electronic equipment can operate in hazardous atmospheric environments — for instance, a monitoring device in a gas tank — without risk of explosion. In the latest intrinsic-safety standard, a key goal of UL and FM Approvals officials is to harmonize the traditionally separate North American standard — last approved in 1988 — with the standard used throughout the rest of the world.
“Motorola believes that the new intrinsic-safety standard is really not appropriate for a land-mobile radio product,” Moloznik said. “We understand why you would want a global standard, but we think there should be an option that if you just want to have a North American standard, you can have that, too — as long as there’s no safety issues with it.”
The IS standard does not mention transmission power levels limits for portable radios, but it does reference a standard set by the International Society of Automation (ISA) that mandates changes in radio design — already implemented in European LMR technologies such as TETRA — that effectively would require power outputs from portable radios to be reduced, if the current LMR portable form factors are maintained, according to most industry sources.
Vendors such as Motorola and Harris sell TETRA equipment in other parts of the world, but the equipment is not certified in the United States. Even if the TETRA certification issues could be addressed in a timely manner, U.S. LMR operators would have to revamp their system designs to maintain their current portable-radio coverage while using TETRA radios, which typically transmit at 1 or 2 watts, Moloznik said.
“It isn’t just a simple matter of, ‘What product can you sell me?’” he said. “It goes back to the whole system-coverage issue. Am I going to buy a product that has less power if I don’t — at the same time — figure out system coverage?
“I don’t think most of the customers are going to sit back and say, ‘OK, now I’m going to start buying this 1- or 2-watt radio. They’re going to say, ‘Before I make that decision, what are my system-coverage considerations here? So there’s a lot of planning that has to go on before everybody’s ready to buy one of these radios.’”
At Harris, engineers are trying to design portable radios that meet the new IS specifications but operate at the power levels traditionally used for LMR in the United States, so that existing LMR system designs and infrastructure can be maintained to provide similar coverage, said Don Martz, director of engineering at Harris. However, the physics involved in meeting the new IS standard specifications will require the proposed portable radio design to be noticeably larger, he said.
“The design concepts that we’ve run by [FM Approvals] may allow us to meet current power levels,” Martz said. “It’s not a sure thing by any means and there are some challenges, but that is our goal — to try to meet the current power levels. If it’s going to make the radio … too much larger, it’s going to make it impractical, so we may have to go back to rebalance those design trade-offs.”
Even if the Harris design for a new IS radio is blessed by FM Approvals and customers from a functionality standpoint, cost still would still loom as an issue for many, if not most, LMR operators. Currently, vendors are able to use many of the same components in both IS and non-IS radios, allowing them to leverage economies of scale to secure better pricing. If IS radios are redesigned to meet the new standard, many of the parts promise to be unique to the IS radios that are sold to a relatively small market.
“It’s going to be an IS-only radio, and we’re going to lose the benefit of the volume that we have by leveraging the common components of the general radio,” Martz said. “It is going to be expensive, and it’s probably not going to be 10% more expensive — it’s probably going to be significantly more than that.
“And that applies to the accessories and batteries, as well. So, it’s going to hit them on a recurring basis in addition to the one-time purchase of the radio, even if all of our design concepts are successful.”
Errors of omission?
Of course, the proposed IS radio being developed by Harris won’t be available for purchase anytime soon, and there’s a possibility that it will never emerge from the R&D lab for a variety of reasons, including cost, form factor, customer needs and IS compliance, Martz said. If those hurdles are cleared, he said the best-case scenario would be that Harris would have a product ready in the latter half of 2012 or early in 2013.
Evidence that vendors like Harris are trying to develop LMR products that meet the new IS standard is encouraging, but such product development should have been initiated several years ago, according to Bob Martell, electrical director at FM Approvals.
“The thing that bothers me the most is that these manufacturers have known about this for a long time,” Martell said. “And some — the largest — have sat on the committees to help develop the standard. So they have known for over a decade that they were going to have to comply with these standards.
“Now that it is happening — I think they thought it was going to go away, and it’s not — they’re driving this down to the end users and getting them all concerned — which is unfortunate — versus going ahead and saying, ‘Hey guys, we’ve known about this the whole time, but we chose not to go ahead and make any new designs.’”
Martell said that the IS standard was submitted for review in 2006 and approved in 2007, with an initial implementation date of Jan. 1, 2010. A two-year delay sought by other industries and a minor ISA change resulted in the current effective date of Jan. 1, 2012, he said.
Martell said that he offered to help educate manufacturers’ end-user customers about the impending changes, “and none of them took us up on it.” Given this history, Martell expressed frustration that most public-safety users first were informed of the IS issue only last summer and fall, when users had no practical options to address the matter.
“Motorola, Harris and all the radio manufacturers sold products to these industries … since 2007, knowing that these products would not be available, originally after 2010, [but] now 2012,” Martell said. “To me, I’d question that.”
Officials for Motorola and Harris acknowledged that an ad hoc LMR industry group began meeting in 2008 to discuss what Moloznik described as “a draft” of the new IS specification that could have an impact on the power levels for portable radios. Only in late 2009 or early 2010 did vendors understand clearly that the 1988 North American IS standard would cease to exist in 2012, he said.
“I think the wake-up call was when everybody realized what the final spec was and that this was not an either/or standard,” Moloznik said. “This wasn’t going to be a choice — the old one’s gone away, and there’s going to be no grandfathering.”
Martell said he does not understand why vendors would have been confused about the standard for multiple years.
“Not only was our standard sent out for review, but the UL standard was sent out for review, and the ISA standard was sent out for review, and no one came back with negative comments about what was being proposed about how you test handheld radios,” he said. “Maybe you missed one standard, but how would you miss three standards?”
Next steps may be painful
Historical finger pointing aside, LMR operators are left in a quandary. Most were not aware of the new IS standard until a few months ago and effectively have no practical way to meet it by the Jan. 1, 2012 — after all, there are no certified products to buy in the U.S. and won’t be for some time.
Even if there were products to purchase, most government LMR operators probably would not be in a financial position to buy them in time, because of the time associated with the logistics of procurement, delivery and distribution. Both enterprise and government entities are struggling to find additional money for anything, and most of what they right now is being spent to meet the FCC’s narrowbanding mandate.
With this in mind, the National Public Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC) in January released a position paper describing the new IS standard as “an outrageous unfunded mandate that taxpayers will have to absorb to accommodate a standard that does nothing to improve public-safety communications.”
In the paper, NPSTC recommended that a separate standard be created for LMR systems that align with existing technology or that the IS standard not be implemented until 2017, so that manufacturers can develop compliant equipment.
FM Approvals is sympathetic to the plight of LMR operators and has offered to grandfather equipment that is in place as of Jan. 1, 2012, until the matter can be resolved, Martell said. NPSTC Executive Director Marilyn Ward said that public-safety officials initially were hesitant about Martell’s offer, in large part because they interpreted that software upgrades to systems would not be allowed after Jan. 1, 2012. However, Martell said that software updates would be allowed.
Even if implementation of the IS standard is delayed for a few years, many LMR operators still face a long-term problem. With implementation of rebanding and narrowbanding either complete or far along in the planning stages, most LMR operators — particularly government entities that support public safety — need to amortize their updated systems for 10 to 15 years, not change them again in five years or less.
“From our perspective, this IS change could not come at a worse time,” William Nelson, chairman of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) communications committee, wrote in a letter to FM Approvals.
Indeed, LMR operators subject to the UHF/VHF narrowbanding mandate should not wait until radios that comply with the new IS standard are on the market, said Bob Speidel, internal advisor on regulatory policy and industry standards at Harris.
“One thing I’m telling my customers is, ‘Don’t ignore the narrowbanding requirement,’” Speidel said.
But Martell said that he does not believe LMR operators should have to change their portable radios or systems in the vast majority of cases. While existing top-level IS equipment would not meet the new intrinsic-safety standard for Class 1, Division 1 locations — areas that typically have a hazardous atmosphere of flammable gas, such as the inside of a gasoline tank or at the well head of an oil rig — the same equipment still qualifies for use in Class 1, Division 2 locations.
Such locations are those that are safe for device operation normally, but can transform into a hazardous situation if something goes wrong, such as a burning building that a firefighter would enter, Martell said. He added that meeting the new top-level IS standard really is not needed for most LMR users, noting that the equipment used today would be just as safe tomorrow, regardless of whether it has the highest FM Approvals rating.
“The manufacturer could still sell products and make the same amount of money — unless they were charging more for an intrinsically safe unit instead of a Division 2 unit — and design new products,” Martell said. “But, for some reason that I can’t figure out, they’re convincing end users, ‘You have to buy Class 1, Division 1 — even to municipalities that don’t even go anywhere near a hazardous environment.”
But such divisional distinctions within the FM standard have not been common knowledge in the LMR industry.
“This is the first I’ve heard of that,” Ward said. She added that she has asked Martell to provide FM Approvals’ position on this and other issues in writing, so that there is no confusion.
Aiken expressed the same sentiment, saying that he was unaware of the various divisions and would like to get more information.
“Perhaps that’s the solution, but this is the first I’ve heard of it, so I don’t know the answer,” Aiken said. “They’ve got to get this message back to public safety and properly analyze this, because — as recently as December — this wasn’t on the table.”
Martell and Aiken both said that they do not believe using IS Class 1, Division 2, equipment instead of Class 1, Division 1, would impact the insurability of an agency. In addition, Aiken said that he is confident that the current LMR equipment his agency uses is safe, is happy with its performance and would like to continue using it.
“Obviously, anything you do to make it not work is going to have a major impact, operationally and financially,” Aiken said.
Whether the standard groups alter the new IS standard or LMR operators simply opt to ignore it — or some negotiated compromise, such as delayed implementation — this issue promises to be one of considerable debate during the next several months. Some LMR users even have suggested that the industry seek new standards bodies to implement IS standards, but most believe such a switch would be impractical.
Instead, LMR-industry representatives need to continue their dialog with the various standards entities without the pressure that the Jan. 1, 2012, deadline is creating today, said Charles Werner, fire chief in Charlottesville, Va. Pushing back the deadline would allow for thoughtful discussion and long-term planning, resulting in a greater possibility of a solution being reached that would meet the needs of both the LMR and insurance industries, he added.
“Delay the standard process until everybody can understand what this specifically references, so we don’t move too quickly and a decision is made that has this great impact,” Werner said. “That’s the key point — make sure everybody is on the same page. … It’s a matter of looking at this from a very wide perspective, to make sure that everything’s covered, so we don’t have any great hiccups.”
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