IAFF: Voice Radio Communications Guide for the Fire Service, Section 6 - System design and implementation
|Editor's note: The IAFF and the USFA released an updated version of its Voice Radio Communications Guide for the Fire Service in Oct. 2008. The guide focuses on seven sections of communications – basic radio communication technology, radios and radio systems, portable radio selection and use, trunked radio systems, system design and implementation, interoperability, and radio spectrum licensing and the federal communications commission.|
Designing and implementing a communications system is an extremely complicated process. It is important to create a structured organization to provide input, carry out decisionmaking, and do implementation work on the project. Get the organization established before beginning the project.
Everyone affected by the fire communications system should have a hand in its selection. This doesn’t mean everyone participates at every step, but it does mean stakeholders must be consulted and their needs given serious consideration. If any constituency gets left out of the planning process, those needs may get overlooked, and the result could be a system that fails to meet the requirements and expectations of the entire community.
• front-line firefighters and the teams that support them in the field;
• dispatchers and others who provide support away from the scene;
• supervisors and managers at all levels;
• fire department leadership;
• union representatives;
• elected officials; and
• personnel from other agencies that collaborate with the fire service.
In today’s world, interoperability is a major concern: The ability of public safety agencies to communicate with each other is critical when events require them to coordinate a joint response. Many localities are answering this need by designing large networks that will be shared by multiple departments and sometimes by multiple cities and counties.
If your community is working on a network that will be shared by other entities in addition to the fire service, you will be collaborating with representatives of those organizations. You’ll face the challenge of giving each agency’s needs appropriate weight. Often the law enforcement component of the system may drive the overall direction of the project, but it’s essential for the fire service to make system designers aware of the needs of the fire service and make sure that the system is designed to accommodate those needs.
Each community has a different approach to organizing the planning effort. Typical efforts include
• A steering committee with top leadership setting the overall policy agenda. Every attempt should be made to have fire department management and labor leadership as participants on the steering committee at the project’s earliest stages.
• Working groups that are assigned to complete specific tasks and report back to the steering committee. If you are appointed to one of these groups, it sometimes can be difficult to determine exactly what your role is supposed to be—both as a group and as individuals. It is important that fire department management and labor are involved in establishing the goals and expectations for each work group.
You may be collaborating with other departments to build a shared multiagency network or you may go it alone on a network for the fire service only. Either way, the more you learn about your department’s needs, the more effectively you can represent the perspective of the fire service in your community.
Design and procurement of radio systems for fire departments are technical and very expensive. Many departments rely on expertise outside of the fire service to advise them on communications technologies. Often these technical experts do not have a complete understanding of the fire service or special requirements related to fireground communications. As a result, many communications systems are built to design parameters based on incomplete or inaccurate information. In support of the design process, fire departments should conduct an analysis to determine the most appropriate radio communications technology. The development of a “Requirements Definition” provides an opportunity to analyze communications needs based on operational practices and inherent risks associated with fire operations. The Requirements Definition also provides a measurable parameter set to evaluate the current radio system.
Sample Requirements Definition
1.0 Functional Requirements:
1.1 Hot Zone Operations
1.1.1 Provide immediate, uninterrupted, predominately local (simplex direct channel), radio to radio (crew to crew) communications (bidirectional) without changing channels.
1.1.2 Crews operating radios in a contaminated atmosphere breathing from SCBAs will be required to use the simplex radio channels.
1.1.3 All radio units operating in the hot zone must be equipped with a PTT ID signaling feature.
1.1.4 All radio units operating in the hot zone must be equipped with an emergency ID signaling feature.
1.2 On-Scene Incident Operations (Fireground)
1.2.1 Provides immediate critical, uninterrupted, predominately local (simplex or direct channel), crew-to-IC communication (bidirectional).
1.2.2 Provides wide-area-type operation for noncritical functional support for 1) Staging, 2) Logistics, 3) rehabilitation, and 4) investigations. IC needs to be equipped for this type of operation.
1.2.3 All radio units must be equipped with a PTT ID signaling feature.
1.2.4 All radio units must be equipped with an emergency ID signaling feature.
1.3 Dispatch Center
1.3.1 Provides uninterrupted, wide area type operation to link the dispatch center to “all” hot zone and onscene incident critical communications (simplex direct channel traffic). Supports reporting from Incident Command (tactical benchmarks) and Command backup, notification to Incident Command of elapsed time and available resources, monitoring and recording of radio traffic, and monitoring of emergency and Mayday traffic.
1.3.2 Fire call (potential hot zone) — The dispatch center will dispatch the call information initially using the wide-area system/channel. The initial call will include the assigned tactical, critical (simplex direct) channel assignments. (See 1.3.4) All further incident communications with the dispatch center radio operator (both transmit and receive) will be heard on the assigned tactical (simplex direct) channels.
1.3.3 Critical radio traffic with the dispatch center (talk-in and talk-out) from the incident should be balanced to ensure consistent communications with units.
1.3.4 On dispatch, responding units should be assigned a wide area system/channel(s) or tactical simplex direct channel(s) based on the nature code of the call. On larger incident(s), functions on the fireground will be classified as critical (C) or noncritical (NC). Critical functions will be assigned a tactical simplex direct channel(s) and noncritical will be assigned a wide area system/channel(s).
1.3.5 Initial incident reporting — Provide a mechanism for the initial crew arriving at an incident to immediately report the incident situation to the dispatch center.
1.3.6 Alerting tones — Provide a mechanism for the dispatch center to generate alerting tones (i.e., emergency traffic) that will be received by all units (crews) operating on the tactical critical simplex channels.
1.3.7 EMS call (nonhot zone) — The dispatch center will dispatch the EMS call information initially using a wide-area system/channel(s). The initial EMS call will include the assigned tactical noncritical wide-area system/channel(s). All further noncritical communications (See 1.3.4) with the dispatch center (both transmit and receive) will occur on the assigned wide area system/channel(s) manned by a Tactical Radio Operator (TRO).
1.3.8 Connectivity — The dispatch center must have continuity of communications with field radio units consistent with typical public safety standards.
1.3.9 Status display — Provide a monitoring system that gives dispatchers a visual indication of the “system status” (green — normal; yellow — site trunking somewhere; red — outage somewhere). Dispatchers need immediate information related to any outage to allow determination of operational impact to fire services. All service-affecting situations for the networks should be immediately reported to the dispatch center.
1.3.10 Capacity indicator — Provide an indication for the dispatchers of system capacity remaining as available for use. Also provide a “busy” indication when a certain level of capacity (grade of service threshold) remains.
1.4 Special Operations
1.4.1 Other special operations in support of fire scene operations, such as use and coordination of a helicopter, may require the use of the simplex direct channels for use on an incident response as assigned for use by the dispatch center during the dispatch process.
1.4.2 Secure communications will be a function of using an appropriate encryption technology.
1.5 Intra-Discipline Operability
1.5.1 The fire department requires radio operability with other regional fire services that operate using different radio communications systems. This is an intradiscipline requirement to support mutual-aid operations.
2.0 Technical Performance
2.1 Analog Modulation
2.1.1 All hot zone and critical onscene incident tactical radio transmissions will use a simplex/direct analog transmission mode.
2.2 Coverage Area
2.2.1 Primary coverage areas are within the service areas of the fire department.
2.3 Coverage Performance (for the coverage areas defined in Section 2.2)
2.3.1 Coverage performance defined for hot zone and onscene incident critical communications for 1) radio unit to radio unit (crew-to-crew operations), and 2) radio unit (crew)-to-IC is defined as the use of portable radios, operating on the assigned frequencies.
2.3.2 Coverage for onscene incident critical communication for radio units (crew and IC) using the simplex analog communications mode with the dispatch center location is defined as the following: equivalent to DAQ 3.4 / 95 percent area reliability for portable in-building communications (talk-out from the portable to the dispatch center and talk-in from the dispatch center to the portable), in the presence of noise, interference, and other factors as listed in TIA/EIA TSB-88, using the following margins above those required for the defined area reliability and based on the manufacturer’s equipment.
22.214.171.124 In the areas considered residential, 12 dB building loss will be added to the baseline signal level required for on street portable coverage (trunking).
126.96.36.199 In the areas considered medium density, 17 dB building loss will be added to the baseline signal level required (trunking).
188.8.131.52 In the areas considered high density, 23 dB building loss will be added to the baseline signal level required (trunking).
2.3.3 Coverage for tactical noncritical communications is as provided by the wide area system/channel(s).
2.4.1 For each coverage region an adequate number of simplex channels are required, based on appropriate traffic studies.
2.4.2 For the entire coverage area, an adequate number of wide-area channels are required based on appropriate traffic studies.
2.4.3 The system shall be designed to accommodate expansion in both the area-specific channels and the wide-area channels as capacity requirements increase.
Interoperability is defined as a communication link (connectivity) and the appropriate operating practices between the primary fire department, automatic aid, mutual aid, and corresponding law enforcement entities that allow radio users to communicate with each other on demand and in real time.
3.1 Connectivity between the dispatch center and these agency’s corresponding law enforcement entities.
3.2 Connectivity between the dispatch center and other law enforcement entities including sheriffs, highway patrol, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI).
3.3 Development of operating practices and training for dispatchers and radio operators.
4.0 Network Transport Requirements
4.1 Capacity — The network transport facilities will be expanded to support the critical response and reliability requirements consistent with public safety services.
4.2 Reliability — Any system transport services should use public safety owned and maintained facilities to support critical reliability and maintenance criteria.
5.0 Site and Facility Requirements
5.1 All towers, shelters, and other remote communications infrastructure will be equipped with the appropriate electrical and mechanical facilities to support the critical response and reliability requirements consistent with public safety type services.
Development of Requirements Definitions should consider these standards:
Standards Related to Incident Operations
1. NFPA 1221, 2002 Edition.
1.1 Section 4.1.2(2) — In the event of the loss of function of communications equipment, an alternative means of communications shall be readily available.
1.2 Section 4.1.7 — Equipment … capacities shall be designed to handle peak loads rather than average loads.
1.3 Section 6.6.1 — Communications centers shall have a logging voice recorder, with one channel for each of the following: (1) Each transmitted or received radio channel or talk group
1.4 Section 184.108.40.206 — The radio communications system shall be monitored as follows: (1) It shall indicate faults and failures, (2) Audible and visual indications of faults or failures shall be provided to the telecommunicator and radio system manager, (3) Monitoring for integrity of portable radios and radio equipment installed in an Emergency Response Facility (e.g. Fire Station) and in emergency response vehicles shall not be required.
1.5 Section 220.127.116.11 — A separate simplex radio channel shall be provided for on-scene tactical communications.
1.6 Section 18.104.22.168.26 — Tactical Communications. Trunked system talkgroups shall not be used to fulfill the requirements for the provision of a simplex radio channel for on-scene tactical communications.
1.7 Section A.22.214.171.124 — The telecommunicator should have the ability to monitor all tactical radio communications.
2. NFPA 1561, 2002 Edition.
2.1 Section 3.3.23 — Radio Communications. Definitions of Command Channel, Dispatch Channel and Tactical Channel.
2.2 Section 4.3 — Communications. Section on communications procedures to support incident management system and operating procedures.
3. OSHA (Act of 1970) — Section 5(a). Duties
(a)(1) Each employer shall furnish to each of his employees employment and place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees
(b) Each employee shall comply with occupational safety and health standards and all rules, regulations, and orders issued pursuant to this Act which are applicable to his own actions and conduct.
4. OSHA Reference — 29 CFR 1926.65 Hazardous Waste Operations and Emergency Response
(d)(3) “Elements of the site control program.” The site control program shall, at a
minimum, include: …, site communications including alerting means for
You may be collaborating with other departments to build a shared multiagency network, or you may go it alone on a network for the fire service only. Either way, the more you learn about your department’s needs the more effectively you can represent the perspective of the fire service in your community.
The planning horizon for a new communications system can range from a few months to several years. Once installed, the system could have a life of 10 years or more. The following are some things that must be considered.
Community needs — Anticipate population growth, density changes, geographic expansion, alliances with other communities, and evolving issues in homeland security and all-hazards management. Any investment you make today should have the potential to grow tomorrow.
Organizational changes — Consider potential staffing changes, departmental realignments, the creation of new work teams and task forces, greater collaboration with State and Federal agencies. Will you be hiring more firefighters, opening or closing stations, or fielding specialized teams such as hazardous materials, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), wildland firefighting, technical rescue, or others?
• Be prepared with statistics that reinforce your department’s importance to the community: How many incidents you handle each year, how many citizens receive service each year,
and how many lives are saved. These can be hard to quantify, but some research should produce numbers you can use.
• Be familiar with your department’s planning initiatives and be prepared to talk about anticipated growth, potential incidents, and disaster scenarios to demonstrate the importance of fire service preparedness.
• Focus on results. It’s not a question of how many antenna towers you have, it’s whether firefighters can hear to coordinate tasks and strategies or hear emergency traffic or a Mayday call when they’re working inside a building. Emphasize how each decision affects the safety of your personnel and citizens.
Also, with the current focus on interoperability, don’t lose sight of the basic mission. It is still more important to be able to respond effectively and safely to the everyday incidents than it is to provide for every possible (and unlikely) disaster scenario. This is not to say that interoperability is not important, but don’t sacrifice a system you can use for a rarely used feature.
Evaluation of Current System
The development of a Requirements Definition provides the metrics, the measures, to evaluate the current radio system. Identifying gaps or lack of gaps will assist in determining the need for a new system, or if updating the old system is cost effective. During the evaluation what are the gaps in the current system you are using? Consider gaps in functionality, coverage, and in meeting Federal and local government mandates (e.g., narrowbanding).
Take a Snapshot of Your Communications Today
What is the current state of your fire communications? This is not an easy question to answer. It’s not uncommon for a department to use more than one communications system and, even with the same equipment, procedures can vary markedly. Collecting this information and pulling it all together in one place is a necessary step and one that requires the commitment of time and resources. Few departments keep statistics about radio usage and performance, so you’ll have to generate much of this information from scratch. Many departments bring in a consultant at this phase, especially to help with the more technical aspects of the job, such as charting call traffic and measuring grade of service. A consultant also can be helpful in collecting “softer” data; sometimes it’s easier for an outsider to interview users and get their honest opinions.
Evaluation of Proposed Technologies
After collecting the statistics of the current communications system, and armed with a Requirements Definition, a comprehensive evaluation of your current system and proposed technologies can be made. The Requirements Definition becomes the scorecard where the current and proposed technologies can be graded on compliance, partial compliance, or noncompliance. All components of the Requirements Definition may not be compliant in all technologies. Each department will have to evaluate each component of the Requirements Definition and derive an importance factor to determine if noncompliance or partial compliance is acceptable for their department.
Create a User Group
The group should be composed of actual communications users who perform firefighting and support tasks. Avoid having technical and support personnel who are not performing actual firefighting and rescue tasks, as this often confuses the user’s message. This group can help determine the what, why, where, when, and how. Ask what is good about the current communications system and what changes would help the users perform more efficiently or effectively. Use this information as part of the overall plan. Compile a complete and accurate picture of how the fire service in your community communicates today before you can get on with the process of making it better for tomorrow.
Technical Options and Conceptual Design
What technology is available to close the gaps between operational needs, Federal, State and local mandates, and the current system? Select the best combination of technologies that close the gaps without compromising the mission. Keep in mind the safety of firefighters, mission effectiveness, and long-term sustainability.
New technologies — While you can’t predict every future capability, you can read news reports and technology journals for emerging systems, pilot programs, and development projects. Look for military spinoffs that will be adapted to the fire service. This how we got thermal imaging cameras for locating fire victims and missing personnel, global positioning system (GPS) location systems, and radios that can operate using different frequency bands and protocols as needed. In the next few years, radio networks will be able to support a range of new features. Even if you don’t have the funding to activate these features today, you may choose to invest in a system that will be capable of supporting them later. These may include:
• Voice-activated intercom systems that would allow multiple interior attack firefighters to communicate while keeping their hands free.
• Large, accessible buttons on turnout gear to enable immediate distress signaling.
• Radio-linked PASS devices that alert a Safety Officer if a firefighter remains motionless for too long.
As an advocate for the fire service, you can use these tips to help ensure that your concerns will not be lost in the shuffle. While many of these technological improvements will prove to be beneficial to firefighters in the future, this guide is directed primarily at voice communications.
Should You Hire a Consultant?
Time, staffing, and know-how are factors in deciding whether to hire a consultant. Do you have people with the necessary technical capabilities and an understanding of complex modern communications systems? Does your organization have time to do the job alone? Can you obtain the necessary staff internally? Do your people know how to perform the assigned tasks? If the answer is “no” to any of these questions, consider getting the assistance of a consultant.
Even if you have some degree of technical capability in-house, the use of an outside consultant brings the benefit of experience. The consultant has (or should have) more experience than you in dealing with communications challenges and providing communications project oversight. The consultant also provides an outsider’s fresh viewpoint, which can be valuable. A consultant can be hired to perform a single, clearly-defined task, or to take on a more comprehensive role. Often, it’s wise to hire a new consultant for a small-scale project and see how it works out before turning over a large-scale responsibility.
If you decide to use a consultant, ask these questions before you hire:
• Have you worked with other public safety agencies before?
• Have you worked with fire departments before?
• Have you worked with fire departments of our size?
• Are you able to provide assistance to overcome budget issues, such as grant writing, understanding the bond process, and creative financing solutions?
• What types of systems have resulted from your work?
• What are some of your successes, and what were some of your failures and how did you overcome them?
• Who are your references and how can we contact them?
• Investigate possible relationships between the consultant and vendors.
Where to Get Advice
Whether or not you use a consultant, investigate these alternative sources of assistance and information:
Other communities — Chances are that another town near you has been through this process already. Look at other departments of comparable size and contact their committee members and arrange a meeting or conference call where you can “pick their brains.”
Conferences — Attend fire and public safety conferences with an eye for communications sources. Programs, panels, vendor displays, demo projects… they’re all good places to get information and hook up with others who have experience they’re willing to share.
Vendors — Manufacturers and system integrators often can provide brochures, white papers, and similar information resources. This is another place to find information about technical issues. An established vendor understands that well-informed customers are the best customers and that providing accurate information is one way to build a strong, lasting relationship and ensure the customer’s long-term satisfaction. Be cautious of vendors who are in business solely to make money, not necessarily to meet your needs. Currently there is a lack of real competition due to the extremely small number of companies who build these systems. You must have a strong labor/management commitment not to use a system until it is proven to be safe and cost effective and to get the best system performance from the contractor.
Government and professional organizations — Several national organizations act as clearing houses for information about public safety communications. Again, a word of caution: While the organizations listed below do good work in the areas of interoperability and system standardization, no other organization outside of the IAFF is focused on the special needs of firefighters involved in interior operations.
U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) SAFECOM program — The SAFECOM program’s mission is to help local, tribal, State, and Federal public safety agencies improve response though more effective and efficient interoperable communications. SAFECOM provides guidance, tools, and templates on communications-related issues and supports research and testing of communications products for public safety. Visit www.safecomprogram.gov or call 866-969-SAFW.
National Interagency Fire Center — The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and the Interior provide information on the use of radios in fighting wildland fires. Much of this information also applies to communications on structural fires. The information includes portable and mobile radio testing results, including digital radios, and training on various topics. For additional information, please see www.fireradios.net
NPSTC — This is a federation of Federal, State, and local associations and agencies. It serves as a liaison among the FCC, Congress, and appointed officials involved in public safety communications. NPSTC was originally formed to implement the recommendations of the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Committee (PSWAC). NPSTC has taken on a wide range of activities related to spectrum policy coordination and the development of new technologies. More information is available online at www.npstc.org or by calling 866-807-4755.
APCO — APCO is a professional organization whose mission “…provides leadership; influences public safety communications decisions of government and industry; promotes professional development; and, fosters the development of technology for the benefit of the public.” APCO sponsors the P25 digital radio standards process. APCO’s focus is primarily on technical and operational standards relating to communications systems and communications centers. For additional information on APCO, go to www.apco911.org or call 888-272-6911
After the needs are identified and a technical solution is decided upon, the budget and implementation timeline can be developed. If the budget is developed too early, the system design may be unduly constrained. When this happens, it is inevitable that functionality and performance will be lost. Once the budget is set, it will be very difficult to get additional funding later to “get it right,” especially if other agencies are pushing forward.
Alternative Funding Sources
Funding is a huge issue, but it should not be your first consideration when assessing your communications requirements. With the renewed focus on public safety and first-response capabilities, more funding is becoming available through Federal, State, and regional government grants. Examples include
• State Homeland Security Grant Program (SHSGP), administered by DHS through the Office for Domestic Preparedness (ODP);
• Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program (FIRE Act), administered by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) (www.firegrantsupport.com); and
• Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) administered by DHS.
In some cases it may be feasible to participate in joint investments with other agencies or nearby communities. This will allow for networking facilities such as core systems, repeater systems, fire-alerting systems, and towers. Costs can be shared among several different organizations. This also improves day to day interoperability among these organizations.
Explore leasing agreements and other financing alternatives to up-front capital investment. Phased implementation plans and adaptable networks that start small and add more capabilities over time as the funding becomes available are also an option. Do not allow cost to become a barrier that prevents your community from building the fire communications system its citizens and your colleagues deserve.
If you decide to try to obtain funding through a grant, it is important that you get started on the grant proposal early and spend the necessary time to get the proposal right. A successful grant proposal is well-prepared, thoughtfully planned, and concisely packaged.
Become intimately familiar with the grant criteria and the eligibility requirements. You must be able and willing to meet these requirements. You might find that eligibility would require providing services otherwise unintended, such as working with particular client groups or involving specific institutions. You may need to modify your concept to fit. Talk to the grant information contact person to determine whether funding is still available, what the applicable deadlines are, and what process the agency will use for accepting applications.
Determine whether any similar proposals have been considered already in your locality or State. Check with legislators and area government agencies and related public and private agencies that currently may have grant awards or contracts to do similar work. If a similar program already exists, you may need to reconsider submitting the proposed project, particularly if duplication of effort may be perceived.
Enlist the support of community leaders. Once you have developed your proposal summary, look for individuals or groups representing academic, political, professional, and lay organizations that may be willing to support the proposal in writing. The type and caliber of community support is critical to your proposal’s ability to survive the initial and subsequent review phases.
You probably can develop the proposal without hiring a grant writer. Most fire grant programs are designed so that an astute member of any fire department can write a successful application. FEMA has a help desk staffed with competent professionals who help applicants through the process. In addition to the help desk, FEMA offers free grant-writing seminars and supports a Web site with helpful grant information (www.firegrantsupport.com). Additional information that may assist grant writers is available through the Responder Knowledge Base (www.rkb.us).
Based on the identified funding and the conceptual design, solicit companies to construct the system. The procurement process typically will involve the development of a request for proposals (RFP).
Developing the Request for Proposals
The more information about your community, your department, and your needs that you write into an RFP, the better. Vendors need to know about your operational needs and your current systems so they can propose appropriate solutions. If it’s not in the RFP, you can’t expect to have it addressed properly in the proposals. Use the labor/management process to document user requirements for operations as the foundation for all of the designs and studies that will follow. This is not about technologists and engineers telling you what technology you need. This is about you telling local government leaders and vendors what you need in the field.
It is very important to involve the agency’s purchasing personnel early in the purchasing process. This helps ensure that all State and local purchasing requirements are followed, and that important contract language is included in the RFP. The RFP should include a summary of all of the steps taken to get to the RFP stage, including the results of the requirements gathering and current system analysis. The more background information you can provide to potential bidders, the closer their proposals will match you needs. In addition, by removing uncertainty from the purchasing process, you reduce the bidder’s risk, hopefully reducing the overall price.
The RFP development stage is a good time to have a consultant involved in reviewing the requirements, and possibly to assist in the preparation of the RFP itself. Much of the RFP can be tedious to develop, and selecting a consultant who has done this work before will reduce the burden on the agency members. In addition, consultants have encountered similar proposals frequently and can include relevant information and experiences into the proposal.
Evaluating Request for Proposals Responses
Modern radio networks employ many different technologies. The best choice for your community usually boils down to striking the right balance between initial cost and long-term capabilities. You need a system that fits your needs and available resources today, with the potential to grow and add more capabilities tomorrow.
The vendor responses to your RFP not only should detail the type of system they’re proposing, but also explain why they’re recommending it over the alternatives. The vendor should be ready to answer any questions you have about the reasoning behind the recommended system design. Be sure vendors are recommending this design because it best meets your specific requirements.
Some questions to ask about the proposed system and equipment:
• Does the system cover your regular and automatic/mutual-aid service area?
• What is the vendor’s solution for fireground communications where the network doesn’t provide 100 percent coverage? What will users do if they are outside the range of your network system or indoors where signals don’t penetrate?
• Does the system have enough capacity to handle normal and abnormal incidents? What happens if the system becomes overloaded?
• How do other public safety and nonpublic safety users affect the fire department’s use of the system?
• How will the system facilitate interoperability with communications systems used by the departments with whom you have mutual-aid agreements?
• How will it alert units of dispatches in fire stations and when out of the station? Can the system accommodate any paging needs?
• Fire-capable end-user equipment (submersible, etc.) is more costly than the radios commonly recommended for police departments; be sure the quote includes the right equipment.
• Are the accessories you need included with each radio (battery charger, speaker microphones, etc.)?
Also, look for an understanding that deploying a new network is not just a technical challenge, but also a major organizational change that requires a full support structure. The vendor’s response should include
• Clear identification of how the technology will support your operations and not affect them negatively. Radio systems should be designed and implemented to support your work, not vice-versa. Your existing internal procedures should not be affected negatively by the new system.
• A phased rollout plan for gradual transition from your current system to the new one.
• An upgrade/migration plan for making further changes in the future.
• User training information, including before, during, and after implementation. This is far more important than most people realize.
• System testing and acceptance procedures.
• Practice session information.
• Life-cycle maintenance, network performance monitoring, and repair procedures.
• Software upgrades for radios and the system infrastructure. To evaluate the solution proposed by each vendor, you’ll need to understand the relative advantages of the technological choices they are recommending. The next chapter will help.
Involve the right people throughout the implementation process. Thoroughly test the system as it is built to ensure that it is meeting needs and expectations.
Successful implementation/integration requires careful attention from the beginning to design compatible links and then test, test, and test again. The vendor’s engineers must have a detailed plan that identifies all of the systems to be integrated and defines which capabilities will be made to work together and when. The plan also should include schedules and priorities, and whether the new network will be made operational before all of the integration is completed.
Encourage everyone to ask questions and make comments. You will want to handle concerns and objections early, before they have the chance to evolve into rumors and long-standing gripes.
Before the contract is signed, ask the vendor or consultant to explain the following, and begin to share that information with the rest of your department:
• What operational differences will our users notice between our current system and the new one? How will their procedures change? What new features will be available? Which, if any, of the old features will change or become unavailable?
• What’s different for the dispatchers? For field supervisors? For personnel back at the station? For personnel using the in-vehicle radios? For administrators and network managers?
• Will users still be able to use their old equipment, or will they be required to learn new equipment?
• What successes and pitfalls have been experienced by other fire departments implementing this type of system? What have you learned from previous deployments?
Training and Transition
Ensure that all firefighters and Command Staff members train with the system often prior to final switch-over. Inadequate training is an especially critical problem and could endanger the lives of firefighters and the citizens they protect.
Training is far more than simply knowing how to turn on the radio and which buttons to press. Training must not become a one-time experience; firefighters need initial exposure, formal training, and opportunities to incorporate radio usage into other training and simulation exercises. The integration plan also may cover interoperability with systems in other departments or jurisdictions. Interoperable communications must be tested with the joint cooperation of these other agencies, and perhaps their system vendors as well. Training can be broken down into phases, as described below, that lead from general information on the system to specific operational aspects of the system, and finally to periodic refresher training.
Awareness — This phase provides general information. A series of videos, using a live spokesperson, explains what’s different about the new system and expectations for the new equipment. The goal is to create interest, not to provide detailed information, and hopefully begin to create champions within your system.
Education — Additional videos are distributed to provide more detailed information on topics such as how to use your radio and what are the direct operational implications of the new system or subscriber equipment. The videos may be broadcast over the department’s video network or local cable public safety access channel and also can be available in the station for firefighters to view at will; lesson plans are available on the department’s Web site.
Training — Six months to one year before the system’s operational deployment, use of the new radios is integrated into fireground training scenarios and in-building tactical preplan surveys. Training is structured in a 3-month cycle. The first month, trainees focus on how to use the radio. In the second month, there’s a walk-through. In the third month, the radios are part of a live drill complete with smoke, while trainees wear full turnouts. After this 3-month cycle is completed, a new lesson plan is used in the next quarter, and the cycle continues until the entire set of training classes has been completed.
Transition — By the time the network is operational and transition begins, users will have had 6 months to 1 year of hands-on training. Two-thirds of the total training time is hands-on. Mobile radio training takes place at the time of installation of the equipment in the truck.
Refreshers — Quarterly refresher training (with an emphasis on lessons learned) and just-in-time updates should continue to be given, as well as an annual refresher on fireground communications.
Beyond this training program, which was designed to support the rollout of the new radios, there are implications for other training organizations and curricula. Communications training must be integrated into all phases of recruit training and company training programs:
• Recruit training should incorporate radios from the beginning. In the past, radios were not used during recruit training and a rookie’s first day on the job was the first day he or she was given a radio.
• The engineer’s academy, captain’s academy, and Command Officer’s academy, as well as special team training should integrate radio communication throughout the curriculum.
Lessons Learned and Feedback
During the first few months after the initial cut-over to a new system, collect and analyze information regularly on the operation of the system. Share this information among all members of the implementation team and, if issues are found that affect operations, share that with the field users.
All members must be involved in providing feedback on system issues and must be kept involved with the solutions. Get buy-in from the system operator and technical staff to take field user input seriously. Encourage all members to report perceived deficiencies in the system and follow up with the users with updates on their reports. If it appears to the users that their feedback is not acted on, they will stop providing that feedback. It is important to ensure that management is honest with users about the operation and safety of the system. If something isn’t working properly, disclose it and find a work-around until the solution is found and in place.
Operation and Maintenance
Ensure that adequate funding is allocated to the operation and maintenance of the system. Just like fire apparatus, the system must be maintained and equipment must be replaced as it becomes unable to serve the agency’s needs. Continuously solicit feedback to keep on top of any problems that come up with the system over time.
Throughout the life of the new network, fire service representatives will need a way to handle such ongoing responsibilities as:
• answering users’ questions and helping them solve problems;
• incorporating radio usage into new training programs and exercises, and presenting refresher courses;
• monitoring the performance of the system and collecting reports of problems, such as buildings that lack coverage, or situations in which there were not enough channels or talkgroups available; and
• implementing network interoperability links to support new mutual-aid agreements with other communities.
Developing and implementing a new communications system can be a complex and expensive project. In the case of a large system, it may be the most expensive and most complex project a department has ever undertaken. These facts make it critical that the project is managed adequately.
Establish a project team that includes fire department management and labor representation early in the project lifetime, involving all stakeholders, and ensure that they continue to participate in the implementation process. Gather information on the communications needs of field personnel and compare this to the radio systems they use. This comparison will result in a gap analysis that shows the deficiencies in the current system. The current system description along with the gap analysis can be used to produce a specification for the new radio system.
After the specification is established, a budget can be developed using the requirements and cost estimates developed from similar systems or through talks with potential vendors. Be cautious in reducing the system functionality if the budget is determined to be too large. Removing coverage or features from the system to reduce cost could affect the usability or safety of the entire system.
Once the implementation of the system has begun, familiarization and training should start as well. Early, simple training will provide end users with information on the system in a more controlled manner. If users don’t get the information they are seeking, they will find it through another path, or will develop their own.
After the new system has been placed into operation, it is critical to follow up with end users on the operation of the system. Over time, users will find design, implementation, and performance issues with the system that were not discovered prior to cut-over, or that occurred after cut-over. Timely resolution of these issues will ensure that your successful project remains successful in the eyes of its users.
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