Use proper training to head off system problems
Do your users complain about the coverage of your existing radio system? Do they complain about the operation of their mobiles and portables? If so, your radio system truly could have problems. However, proper end-user training could minimize unnecessary reporting of problems and reduce the radio technician’s workload. Indeed, such training is critical for the successful implementation of a new radio system and for the effective operation of an existing one.
In a budget crunch, training dollars are often the first to get cut. This stems from a failure to understand the importance of education. Training is about more than powering the radio on and off, or how to change the channel or talk group. As radio professionals, we never should forget our mission is to ensure the safety of those who use our communications equipment as their lifeline. At a moment’s notice, a police officer or firefighter could be in a fight for their life, or for someone else's. Seconds literally count and the radio gear they carry must work. At a minimum, the first responder needs to know what to expect from their radio system. Radio is serious business and training should be part of that.
Training should cover, at the very least, the basics of the portables and mobiles that the users operate, such as channel control, volume, the layout of the subscriber units and special function keys. More importantly, the training should cover the radio's programming information, in other words, what's in the radio. For instance, identifying the number of channels and the purpose of each will require a careful study of your agency's standard operating procedures and coordination with command. If a third party is conducting the training, the trainer must understand fully the agency's mission and proper channel usage. Otherwise, ensure that a representative of the agency is present to discuss SOP-related training topics; sometimes this is required for liability reasons.
Certain radios have special programming features, such as modes for surveillance operations, emergency declarations or officer-down situations. Be sure that this is fully explained and demonstrated, using hands-on demonstrations in the classroom. If your classroom has inadequate radio system coverage, then that room is the wrong room to use. Never conduct training where the users cannot get hands-on experience with special features — no exceptions.
If your system is conventional, try to use a secondary repeater channel. Talk-around should be demonstrated as an additional feature and not used for training, unless your system is a small simplex operated system. This is important because if the agency's repeater fails, the end-user needs to know how to switch to talk-around, what it means, when to use it and how to return the radio to repeater operation when the repeater is brought back into service.
Trunking systems have all the features of a conventional system and more. Instead of assigning a radio channel to a specific organization, users are organized into talk groups and the system automatically finds an available channel when a conversation needs to occur. Adding a talk group for dedicated training is easy and that temporary group can be created by the system administrator and then removed from the system later, if necessary. However, it always is recommended that a few training talk groups be permanently included in a trunking system. This also includes leaving the training groups in the subscriber radios as well. The system administrator can enable or disable these special groups as required to eliminate unauthorized usage.
Trunking systems are designed in multiple ways to maximize coverage. They can be of single-site, multi-site or simulcast design. So, it is imperative that your user training fully explains the concept of the specific design the agency is using. The explanation doesn't need to be technical but the end-user needs to know why the radio will respond the way it does. For example, in a multi-site design, the radio will switch tower sites based on its proximity to the site with which it is currently affiliated, as opposed to adjacent sites. The subscriber units can be programmed to announce this change via a sound from the speaker or a visual prompt on the radio's display. The radio also can be programmed to change talk groups, automatically without user intervention, as the radio switches sites.
You may wonder why such a feature would ever be used; however, keep in mind that manufacturers design high performance, mission-critical, public- safety trunking systems to be as flexible as customers need them to be. Trunking systems have features and functionality that far exceed need but are nonetheless valuable to certain agencies, depending upon each agency's mission.
System operation contingency plans always should be taught in the event of site or total system failure. In a conventional system, this may mean changing channels. In a trunking system, which group of users goes to what channel in the event of a failure? Further, which users go to talk-around or another simplex channel? In a trunking system, if the entire network fails, how are the radios programmed to respond—is manual intervention required by the end-user or does the radio switch to a pre-programmed system, talk-group or a conventional channel? Moreover, is the system coverage footprint reduced? If so, where is coverage impacted? Ensure that your end-users fully understand these factors, as this knowledge is critical should a system failure occur.
Remember, public-safety systems are used most heavily during catastrophic events such as earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, floods and blizzards. Your system's risk of failure is exponential during these times.
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Ira Wiesenfeld, P.E., has been involved with commercial radio systems since 1966, and has experience with land-mobile-radio, paging and military communications systems. He holds an FCC general radiotelephone operator’s license and is the author of Wiring for Wireless Sites, as well as many articles in various magazines. Wiesenfeld can be reached at email@example.com.
Christopher Dalton has designed, staged and implemented virtually every kind of LMR system in his two-decade-long career, including conventional, trunked, simulcast, Project 25, single-site and multisite. He holds an FCC general radiotelephone operator’s license. Dalton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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