A Look at Radio—Its Use and Abuse
Wilmington Morning News photo by Bill Snead
More than hardware is involved in improving communications; better operating methods can ease overcrowding of frequencies
Review of the state of the art in fire service communications today discloses the same problems that have always been there: allocation of radio frequency channels and the cost of equipment. But it’s equally clear that even where these problems have been overcome, and despite improvements in technology, there is much more involved in success than just the proper hardware. The subtleties of communication between human beings, only beginning to be explored in the fire service, need far more attention.
What are today’s greatest needs in fire communications? According to one field engineer for a leading equipment supplier, the biggest difficulty remains “what it was in the beginning—frequency allocation.”
But Chief Wilfrid Parsons, chairman of the IAFC Communications Committee, has these comments: “There seems to be general concurrence that not only is there a need for additional frequencies to alleviate the traffic squeeze which is increasing each year, but also for frequencies to perform functions beyond those of simple fire communications.” And, he continues, “Obviously we are not making the most effective use of existing fire radio communications, and it is evident that more than education is required to solve the problem of improper use and abuse of fire radio. Education has not been too effective in controlling the carnage on our highways, and we will need better policing of the air traffic at all levels if we are to avert traffic jams on the air.”
These jams have many causes. Some of the troubles are real, other illusory. Contrary to some impressions, base station signals in the higher frequencies used by public safety radio aren’t necessarily confined to short distances. Transmissions of the New York Fire Department are commonly monitored in Washington, D. C.—220 miles away. If the far-off station isn’t using the local frequency, this may be harmless. But this isn’t always the case. Chicago and Milwaukee fire radio traffic often conflict. Even fire officers in the two cities, 80 miles apart, sometimes mistake one city’s messages for the other’s.
Some agencies complain of unauthorized civilian monitoring of public safety radio traffic. Some states (such as New Jersey) have had legislation for years banning the use of police frequency radios by civilians in autos. Philadelphia is reportedly seeking a similar ban. However, some such laws have been declared unconstitutional. In other instances, the courts have been quite lenient. It is certainly debatable how much interference with either fire or police services comes from radio-equipped civilian autos or homes. Routine TV and radio news coverage often draws hundreds of sightseers, few of whom ever hear of a disaster from other sources.
Crowding of the frequency spectrum is a real problem. As one author wrote in the July 1969 issue of FIRE ENGINEERING, “Crammed into 5 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum are over 2.5 million transmitters, and applications for new ones are pouring in at a rate of 15,000 a month.” Channel splitting and some reallocation of ultra high frequencies, such as 490 megacycles, helped for a while. But added to normal expansion of communications services has been the growing use of two, three, four or six different frequencies by a single fire department to segregate traffic of different types.
In such metropolitan areas as Cook and Lake Counties in northern Illinois, one local fire marshal considers the available frequencies to be “‘seriously overcrowded.”
Closer study of the situation, however, reveals that too many officials have tended to overlook or neglect other needed areas of improvement. Even where radio channels are open and available, shortsightedness in and out of the fire service has caused misuse—or nonuse.
For example, despite the fact that as long ago as 1957 the IAFC’s Communications Committee called attention to the “urgent need for a common mutual aid frequency for the Fire Service,” and that today several such frequencies (even for statewide use) have been set aside by the FCC, some major metro areas not only don’t use such a frequency but in some cases the biggest city in that area is unable to receive or transmit on any area-wide public safety radio frequency. This hamstrings effective mutual aid involving the city itself. The result in case of a major disaster can well be imagined.
There are some bright spots, of course. During the early ’50s many countywide fire radio systems were set up in New York State, eventually involving each of the 62 counties. But, as Parsons (former Cortland County fire coordinator) put it, “few dreamed how extensively this new tool would be used. Advice regarding selection of frequencies was usually spurned.”
Each department seemed to feel, “We want to be on the same frequency with our neighbors so we can all talk to each other.” The resultant overcrowding of frequencies rendered operations virtually impossible during large-scale emergencies. (Similar difficulty—with every unit on the scene trying to talk at once—has arisen even in relatively sparsely settled Wisconsin.) In one portion of Western New York, 11 out of 15 counties were all on the same 46.10 megacycle band while other available bands went begging.
Growth of mutual aid systems crossing county boundaries only made conditions worse. The solution, worked out by a study group under the County Fire Coordinators of New York State, was to obtain new frequencies via FCC channel splitting and thereby establish county-to-county networks for mutual aid control, as well as to better distribute the intra-county frequency use itself. So far, 19 counties have changed frequencies; others are preparing to follow. Thirty-two counties are tied into a point-to-point net while others are installing equipment.
Says Parsons, now retired from Cortland County and devoting more of bis time to the task of FCC fire frequency coordinator for the state, “A marked improvement in fire communications has already resulted from the implementation of these programs.”
And, he might have added, with no really new hardware at all.
Equipment technology does advance, of course. Improvements are being made, and there are others which are needed. Only a limited amount has yet been done, for instance, to increase the fire fighter’s degree of being “in touch” with home base. Little has come of the proposal to amend FCC rules so a hand-carried transmitter can trigger a vehicle transmitter some distance away and relay a message to a base from a fire fighter not in the vehicle.
Cost reduction will continue as a prime goal. Volunteer fire fighters, like their full-time counterparts in metropolitan areas, want hand-held transceivers. But the cost ($500 to $1000 each) is prohibitive for many departments. There is some use of citizens band equipment, which is cheaper. Built for casual civilian use, however, it is less rugged and reliable. And in any event, it is confined to frequencies open to the public and outside the FCC fire-police bands.
Efforts to reduce costs are running into increasing difficulty because of conflict with another goal—miniaturization. It is costing relatively more to make some equipment as small as desired than can be offset by design economies in other areas. Sets being purchased now should have either present or future capability for multiple-frequency operation to accommodate a mutual aid or area-wide frequency in addition to the local one—which is another extra feature to allow for.
Another technological goal is the wider use of radio-controlled remote equipment. In several areas of the country, notably San Jose, Calif., microwave radio relay has been used for years to transmit fire alarm telegraph signals to fire stations located where extension of land lines would be too costly.
In Alamance County, N. C., a dispatcher dials a signal which sets off 10minute rounds of sirens alerting volunteers in designated communities over a 25-square-mile area. Remote microphones automatically monitor the sound of each siren and broadcast that sound back to the dispatcher so he will know everything is working.
Control of traffic signals by radio, to clear the way for responding apparatus, can be a help.
Now on the market, after having been tested in the Milwaukee Police Department, is a mobile radio-tone activated teletypewriter for vehicle use. In police work, this eliminates much tedious copying by squad car officers of stolen car descriptions and other routine messages. In fire fighting, mobile unit could produce hard copy hazard data during response to alarms in specific industrial or commercial areas. A dispatcher would simply drop a prepunched card into a transmitter slot. Many other uses are possible. Advantage of the tone signal operation is that it cannot be monitored or interfered with by outsiders.
And yet, despite the attention paid to radio in fire service literature for almost a generation now, some fire departments are still only beginning to use it. One major city recently ordered for the first time portable radios for its chief officers and their aides, having continued all these years to use runners to carry messages on the fireground.
Traffic volume challenge
What looms as the real challenge for fire officials, then, is how to fully utilize and cope with the sheer volume of message traffic which can and will come when full use of radio occurs. New York City is getting close to the ultimate situation of having every fire company radio-equipped while away from their vehicles with a proposal to buy 1,055 portable miniature sets.
Imagine the complement of companies at a major multiple in a big city or at a large barn or rural factory fire attended by half a dozen volunteer departments. The noise and confusion of a dozen orders at once being shouted in a dozen places affecting a dozen groups of people is now only a minor problem because it carries only as far as the voices. But with radio in the hands of every fire fighting unit, all the talk on any given frequency will reach every pair of ears on the scene.
The effect of pulling several telegraph alarm boxes at once has been overcome by technology in the form of the successive noninterfering box circuit. But no such technology appears likely to deal with the problem of simultaneous voice radio transmission. And the blocking out of a message at a crucial moment can be dangerous.
Radio training needed
This means that fire fighting training at all levels must begin to stress the communications problem just as much as it now stresses the proper way to raise a ladder or stretch a hose line. Not only the mechanics of radio operation—self-identification, clarity of speech, picking the correct frequency, and so on—but also the subtleties of the process must be learned. These include quick, accurate judgment of whether or not the message is really necessary, knowledge of the unintended meanings that might be placed upon it, and a feel for whether it is worded to avoid needless questions.
In short, fire fighters will have to learn how to communicate more efficiently. Reducing and simplifying message traffic may prove the only way to cope with the growing numbers of those wanting to communicate in the face of shrinking capabilities.
As yet, however, this is a subject rating only passing mention in either individual fire department training or in college fire technology work. The Nebraska State Volunteer Firemen’s Association has published a 12-page booklet titled, “Two-Way Radio Operating Procedure Manual.” But such educational efforts seem few and far between.
Study of the typical programs of at least one state fire service training agency shows little being done in this area.
Says a senior instructor, ‘“The only meetings concerning fire department communications which I recall have been held by a few associations to discuss mutual aid communication problems.”
To the credit of his office, there are plans to enter this area of training with emphasis on “how to communicate clearly between people without misunderstandings .”
One operating deficiency reported by many fire chiefs in a 1965 survey was lack of any set procedure for advising the dispatcher of conditions upon arrival at a fire. This is still true today. Where procedures do exist, they may not always be followed. During the early stages of a multimillion dollar blaze in an eastern city not long ago, response of one engine company and a chief officer was delayed because the first arrivals did not report a working fire.
Even the day-to-day base station functions need tightening up. One FCC inspection several years ago disclosed rule violations in nearly 60 percent of the stations visited. One of the common offenses: faulty records.
Again, admitted shortcomings in technology should not obscure the real need for the fire service to learn to work properly with what it already has.