Why aren’t more people talking about multiband radios?
Corrected at 7:46 a.m. on March 23, 2011
A slew of unimaginable disasters have hit the U.S. and overseas, most recently an earthquake in New Zealand and a quake-tsunami in Japan. Such disasters have highlighted the need for trained public-safety personnel and equipment to help address the unimaginable. For example, while engineering experts wrestled with the task of containing Japan’s nuclear reactor, firefighters sprayed water from a tanker in order to cool it. In addition, U.S. firefighters were sent across the Pacific to provide search-and-rescue and fire-suppression assistance. This further emphasizes the need — regardless of budget restraints and political wrangling — for our nation’s first responders to be the best-prepared outfit in the world. It not only would ready them for U.S. disasters, but also positions them as ambassadors by becoming the world’s heroes during international disasters.
All of this makes me wonder, where are we when it comes to deploying high-tech communications technology that is needed to address the multi-faceted response of such monumental disasters? I immediately thought of multiband radios. A few years back, I sat in on a conference session hosted by the Department of Homeland Security, which unveiled the first software-defined multiband radio from Thales. The technology made sense. More than that, it seemed like the perfect solution. Because the radio operates in multiple frequency bands all regional agencies needed to do was hold tabletop exercises, sort out which interoperability channels would be used and wait for an incident.
Given this, it’s somewhat surprising to me that I’ve heard much more about digital fire radios than multiband radios since then. Vendors have invested considerable research money and scientists’ time — even tapping into fire departments across the nation — in order to get it right regarding fireground-ready digital radios. I give kudos to companies like EF Johnson, Harris and Motorola that have developed ergonomic, noise-cancelling radios loaded with the latest vocoders. But many in the fire service argue that digital radios still are not where they need to be in order to be used safely by fire departments. This notion was expressed by Kevin Nida, president of the California State Firefighters’ Association, during a session at the 2011 International Wireless Communications Expo. Nida was the truth-teller among a plethora of vendors on the panel. In fact, the CSFA president spoke passionately about the topic, including naming firefighters’ lives lost because radio systems failed.
After the session, I pulled Nida aside to get more information. At his department — which responds to more than 1,300 calls daily — he’s been able to track the problems with digital radios. As a result, he speaks from experience based on his fire department’s “accelerated technology testers,” i.e., line firefighters and incident commanders. “When you have 1,300 calls, 365 days a year, you run into a lot of radio problems where you can identify what it is and fix it,” he said.
Nida said that firefighters complain that digital radios fail them most often when they are in steel- and concrete-built cities, like Los Angeles, especially when people are underground. In addition, analog signals degrade gradually as one moves farther away from the tower, so wildland firefighters using such radios in wide open plains, valleys and mountainous regions are able to determine when communications are about to become out of range. There is no such warning with a digital radio, which simply stops working when used beyond the edge of the coverage area.
Compounding matters is that most wildland areas in California lack communications infrastructure of any kind, but particularly digital infrastructure.
“Obviously [the] digital [signal] goes further [than analog], but where we are there’s always going to be a situation when we are on the fringe,” Nida said.
Also, digital radios make everyone sound the same, so it often is tough to recognize who is speaking, according to Nida.
“Many people sound the same, so if someone doesn’t use an identifier and they call for help … you lose that voice identity,” he said.
And then there’s the price issue. Though a good digital radio now can be purchased for under $2,000, that’s considerably more than an analog radio. But it is far less than a multiband radio — all of which, it should be noted, can operate in analog mode when necessary — which would set a department back roughly $5,000.
For these reasons, many — if not most — fire departments have been unwilling to abandon their analog radios for digital, though some departments have tried to find a balance point by assigning personnel two radios — one digital and one analog — in an attempt to replicate, at least in part, the performance of a multiband radio. But who wants to carry around two radios?
Despite the challenges outlined above, Nida believes that “multiband radios are the wave of the future.”
I couldn’t agree more and would go a step farther by opining that the future is now, and that an army of first responders equipped with multiband radios would be the best solution. Yes they’re pricy, but they will continue to go down in price — they always do, sooner or later. Even if they don’t, a multiband radio represents a sound investment for every public-safety agency. Because in the end, another disaster will hit the U.S., either natural or manmade, and we need to make sure our heroes are as well-equipped as possible for the task.
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Ed: Due to an editing error, a previous version said that some, rather than all, multiband radios are capable of operating in analog mode. We apologize for the error.