Radios should fit needs
Robert C. Bingham in “Improving Fireground Radio Communications” (February 1997) rightly focuses on the content of the communication and the need for precise language to ensure communication is achieved. His brief comments on modern portable radios need some expansion and clarification, however.
As radio systems became more complex and increasingly controlled by computer systems, the portable radio had to become more complex and more capable. In some instances, the added abilities came as a “freebie” when a computer became the radio-control device. In other instances, the complexity of the command structure and the communications system required the features.
Typically today, a fire company is dispatched on one channel, talks to dispatch on a second channel, and fights the fire on a third channel. In many suburban areas with regional dispatch centers, there may be zone channels, repeater, and unrepeater (simplex) channels, township channels, and mutual-aid channels. Because of CTCSS (PL) and operating modes, a typical suburban fire company might need from four to 16 channels to talk to everybody on the fireground and the dispatch center. Trunking systems are even more complex but merely require the users to select the talk group to which they are assigned.
The trend to smaller radios has led to several difficulties. First, the small radio has smaller controls and markings. A control may have several positions and modes. It is often easy to move a small switch from A to C position just by placing the radio in a turnout pocket. The other problem is that small radios have small batteries.
The controls must be designed to fit the user and the use. Radios that cannot have their scan lists or priorities changed easily and temporarily in the field should not be in the field. Switches should either be simple on-off toggles or rotary switches with a stop. If a speaker/mike is used, a volume control should be on the speaker/mike itself. The controls should be designed to prevent accidental changes.
The batteries should be easy to change, with gloves on if possible. Twist-off or slide-off batteries are preferable to “take the cover off” styles.
As to those fancy features, the ANI and the “man down” can tell you who went down better than a PASS and without the need for another firefighter to be within earshot of the downed man. The DTMF (touch tone) keys can be used to open the firehouse doors, sound sirens, change traffic lights, and call outside the system if interconnect is available (no cell phone charges).
When deciding how much radio is too much, remember that in a trunked environment there often is no competitor for the trunk system supplier and you have to buy what works with your system. In other bands and modes, not too many people still want the big brick that weighs 40 ounces or so when a palm-size, one-ounce radio claims to do the job for less.