Know these 3 things before buying a fire-EMS radio system

To buy the right system, you first need to know what you expect from it now and years down the road


By John Facella, P.E., C. Eng.

Do you have an old land mobile radio system for your fire or EMS department, and it's time to replace it? With new technologies out there like digital P25, digital mobile radio and LTE, which system should you choose?

Here are three steps to take when upgrading your radio system.

Mike Fortmann of the 128th Air Refueling Wing Fire Department, Milwaukee, communicates with headquarters via a handheld radio during a training exercise. (Image Wisconsin Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Jeremy Wilson)
Mike Fortmann of the 128th Air Refueling Wing Fire Department, Milwaukee, communicates with headquarters via a handheld radio during a training exercise. (Image Wisconsin Air National Guard Staff Sgt. Jeremy Wilson)

Internal Assessment

Draw up a list of what's right and what's wrong with your current system. Where is your radio coverage inadequate, and where will it be inadequate in 10 years when there is growth in your jurisdiction? Do you have the interoperability that you need so that automatic-aid or mutual-aid companies support you on incidents?  

Also, become familiar with the requirements of NFPA 1221, which defines the standard for communications systems for emergency services. There have been recent changes in this standard in several areas including alternative power sources, response times and cyber security.

Operations considerations

No one knows more about your operations, the profile of your calls in terms of geography and nature of incident, and the expectations of your residents, than your team. Make sure there is involvement at multiple levels including the chief, company officer and line personnel.

In volunteer or paid-on-call or combination departments, call out processes become important and paging systems are limited to only a few choices.

In career departments, move-up procedures in large incidents, station alerting and shift staffing all become important. Communications with regional resources like technical rescue or hazmat teams must be considered.

Technologies

Conventional systems (non-trunking) work fine for many small to mid-sized agencies: They are simple and their costs are lower. However, if you start to encounter lots of channel congestion and obtaining more channels is not likely, trunking may be the answer.

Trunking also makes a lot of sense if you are building a radio system to consolidate the operations of many disparate agencies onto one system to save money and equalize radio coverage. 

Some new technologies have emerged that you should be aware of. Standards-based digital mobile radio and digital private mobile radio are technologies available in conventional and trunking modes of operation. 

However, the public-safety industry long ago demanded that one digital technology be used, which became Project 25. Use of technologies other than analog or digital P25 will create issues of interoperability. 

FirstNet is going to bring broadband data using long-term evolution technology, as used by the commercial cellular carriers, to first responders. However, FirstNet is just getting started, and a nationwide build out is probably 10 to 15 years away.

It is important to do an internal assessment of the current state of your system and what you want the new system to do, and to look at operational considerations. The choice of analog vs. digital and other technology issues needs to be driven by operational considerations, not vendor promises.

John Facella is a senior vice president of RCC Consultants Inc. He has over 30 years in the public safety wireless industry, including working for the two largest vendors. He is a member of the International Association of Fire Chiefs Communications Committee, the NPSTC Broadband EMS Working Group, and the National Fire Protection Association 1221 and 1802 committees.

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