Why Monroe County fire departments are concerned over radio system upgrades

I don’t like linking to Democrat & Chronicle articles due to their paywall and tendency to disappear without notice but this was important enough for me to break my own rule. You may have to search their site if this link doesn’t work.

If the events of September 11, 2001 taught first responders anything, it’s that the existing radio systems were not able to handle the large amount of traffic and need for different agencies with different equipment on different frequency bands to talk to each other. Ever since efforts have been directed towards coming up with a way to fix those problems. But it hasn’t been easy, and a decade later most of the US is far from having such a system in place.

Monroe County is not alone this regard. Many police agencies use radios in the UHF (450 MHz) band, while fire and ambulance use VHF (150 MHz). Meanwhile, many neighboring counties use 46 MHz. Most agencies lacked the ability to communicate with anyone on a different band, those that did usually did so with a separate radios. The technology was basically the same as it had been since the 1950s until 9/11. In the aftermath the FCC realized the need to expand the available bandwidth for radio communications and issued a directive to expand the number of frequencies available by “narrowbanding” the existing channels. Public service users were required to either modify or replace existing radios to allow for this. In most cases, the radios were not modifiable and had to be replaced.

This was no small undertaking for most agencies in Monroe County, especially in the fire service. That’s because in Monroe County each fire department has its own FCC license and is responsible for purchasing and maintaining its own radios. At the county-wide level there is a mutual aid agreement, which gives each department the use of the radio frequencies and the dispatching from the 911 center. Updating receivers such as pagers was optional (and mostly not done) but anything that transmits has to be narrowband-compliant. So every vehicle radio and every portable “walkie talkie” had to be replaced/upgraded. It wasn’t cheap or easy and while some grants were available, most of it was paid through fire taxes.

But narrowbanding was mostly intended to be a stop-gap measure. The radios are still analog FM, technology that’s been in use for half a century. The future, as seen with television, is digital. Digital radio has the advantage of very bandwidth stingy compared to analog and you can put a number of digital signals in the same space as a single analog FM signal. In addition, digital can be encrypted making it much more difficult to be monitored by people with scanners. Local police agencies have switched to digital, using a system called P25 (or APCO-25), which does exactly that. Now town/village departments, the county sheriff and the state police can all communicate with each other without having to have additional radios. Fire and EMS remains on analog.

But that won’t last. There has been talk since the 1990s of switching to some type of “trunked” radio system (that offered more available channels) but very little action resulted. Even after 9/11 there was more talk than progress. As mentioned above, a lot of this was because individual departments are in the hook for the costs of replacement and upgrades. Eventually the county got to the point where it started implementing the upgrades and awarded a (contested) contract to the local Harris/RF Communications company to supply the central infrastructure. But it’s still the responsibility of the various agencies to purchase compatible equipment.

It’s not going well. In addition to the issues around the granting of the contract to Harris, Monroe County is in the midst of corruption investigations over its Local Development Corporations. Add to that limits on how much fire districts can raise taxes to pay for the upgrades and you have a situation where the county will have to maintain the older analog system while using the newer digital system until all the agencies can manage to pay for their upgrades. It could take years.

Adding the potential cost is a side-effect of the digital communication system itself. Analog radios can easily communicate with one another without anything in between. But digital systems require a central command radio, similar to the way cell phones work. You can be next to someone and not be able to communicate with them if you can’t reach that commanding radio. As a result, operations in buildings may require a portable command radio to be setup at the site. This would of course have to be purchased by the individual fire district.

The schedule says 2016, but given all of the above I wouldn’t bet on it. And we’re all going to pay for it, one way or another.

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