Communication System Makes County Mutual Aid Effective

Communication System Makes County Mutual Aid Effective

All Communities in Oneida County, N. Y., Linked With Utica Control Center; Sirens Activated by Remote Control


Editor’s note: This is the story of the mutual aid plan of Oneida County, New York, with emphasis on one factor, and the most important fundamental of that plan: its radio communications system. By “system” we include not alone the material facilities, such as network, control center and so on, but the personnel assets which make the system click.

This is a tribute also to planning and cooperation between men and communities and, more important, between professional paid fire fighters and volunteer firemen, without which efficient county mutual aid cannot function.

The threat of atomic enemy attack and the multiplying complications in the nation’s fire suppression problem have spurred organizing for more and better mutual aid. This has in turn focussed attention on improved fire service communications with particular emphasis on short wave radio.

The story of Oneida County is given in detail in the hope that it will assist the fire services of those other counties and areas which presently have this problem under consideration to find the solution to their problem.

The author recognizes the assistance of the following: Chief Leo R. Barry and Chief Dispatcher A. Edward Rothenberg of the Utica, N. Y., Fire Department; Ward A. Bohner, Oneida County Fire Coordinator and member of the County Fire Advisory Board; B. Richter Townsend, Chief, Bureau of Fire, Division of Safety, New York State, and his staff, and lastly, the Utica, N. Y., Observer-Dispatch.

RECIPROCAL assistance, or as today’s fire service knows it, “mutual aid,” is nothing new. From the advent of the fire service itself, there has always existed a willingness of one fire force to go to the aid of its neighbors in time of emergency.

For the most part, however, this was a form of cooperation, without coordination, plan or system. Mere willingness and eagerness could not offset difference in hydrant and hose threads, and lack of communications and other facilities requisite to sound functional mutual aid. In the late 1920’s, attempts were made to reduce mutual aid to a more intelligent systematic basis in a number of states and counties, notably southern Illinois, the Boston suburban area and Westchester County, New York. Aside from the Boston area, which utilized wire telegraph circuits, all mutual aid communications were dependent upon the commercial telephone and/or telegraph or messengers. Until the 1930’s, there were no centralized controls, or area headquarters to direct mutual aid operations and which could serve as the heart or nerve centers of all mutual aid communications.

Chief Leo R. Barry, at his desk in Fire Headquarters, Utica, N. Y. Utica is the center of the Oneida County Mutual Aid System.

Shortly before World War II the first such County Fire Control Center was established in Westchester County, N. Y., and soon after, similar and improved control headquarters were introduced in suburban Washington and other areas. All of these had one serious weakness, however. That was inability to maintain liaison between the control center and the fire forces in the field, and between all the numerous fire department headquarters in the mutual aid system. At that time such radio as was employed by or available to the fire service was shared by it with police or other services. It remained for the Federal Communications Commission to correct this drawback by making exclusive frequencies available to the fire service.

Oneida County’s Mutual Aid Plan was launched about 1940 by the Oneida County F’ire Chiefs Association and other interested groups. The first coordinator for the organization was Joseph N. Sullivan, Commissioner of Public Safety for the City of Utica.

It was not until July, 1949, however, that the original seed for such a plan as the county Mutual Aid Association radio network took root. This occurred at a summer quarterly meeting of the Oneida Countv Fire Chiefs held in Lee Center, N. Y.

Chief Ward Bohner of Waterville, N. Y., who recently was appointed fulltime county fire coordinator for the County Mutual Aid and Fire Radio System, as it is known, presented for consideration the recommendation that all fire stations in the county be linked together by a radio network. He suggested that each of the nearly 50 fire stations in the county should install its own transmitter and receiver and, thus equipped, all stations could immediately know about any emergency occurring anywhere in the county and whatever aid was desired.

A committee was appointed by the association to contact radio manufacturers to obtain information and recommendations for such a system. The group reported its optimistic findings in October, and this led in turn to formation of a new committee of county officials to make further investigations.

These men approached the Oneida County Board of Supervisors and, after some discussion, were able to obtain from them an appropriation of $35,000 to purchase a 30-watt 2-way mobile radio for one fire department truck in each town or village in the county that was a member of the Mutual Aid Association.

Fortunately for the program, in addition to sparkplug Ward Bohner the county found another active supporter in Fire Chief Leo R. Barry of Utica, who arranged with Commissioner Sullivan for the installation of the system’s dispatching center for the counts network in the Utica fire alarm headquarters. This helped the volunteers surmount one of their most difficult hurdles—-that of locating a suitable round-the-clock control center. These facilities are situated on the third floor of the Utica headquarters where they are administered by the Utica Fire Department’s regular fire alarm personnel.

Into the Oneida County Mutual Aid Plan at the present time are integrated Oneida County’s 45 fire departments (the Portner Fire Company at Lee is not a party to the program because it has no assigned fire district, and consequently lacks fire underwriter’s recognition, and the Lairdsville unit is a second company of the Westmoreland Fire Department. These communities (exclusive of the cities of Rome and Utica, which are both in the plan) range in population from 500 to 5,000 persons, the average population for each fire district being about 2,000.

Because mutual aid cannotbe too rigidly restricted to political sub-division boundaries, and fire knows no county or state lines, some six out-of-county fire departments have been taken into the system as full partners. These are Old Forge, Poland and West Einfield, closer geographically to Oneida County’s population centers than those of Herkimer County, of which they are a part; Unadilla Forks which is rather remote from other Otsego County communities; West Leyden, a Lewis County community, which also looks to Oneida County for its trading and social life; and Williamstown, an Oswego County village that works closely with Camden.

But the system is more far reaching than this. Through agreements reached under the State Mutual Aid disaster program, Oneida County can call on any one of its immediate neighbors for help—Herkimer, Lewis, Madison, Otsego and Oswego, and they, in turn, can seek and receive help from Oneida County. Through the State Division of Safety, Bureau of Fire, help from other counties—in theory, from any other county or municipality in the state— will be forthcoming if necessary. It should he mentioned that most of these other counties either have two-way radio networks, or are installing them.

Radio equipment has been extended in recent months to every fire department in the county. Each department is entitled to one mobile two-way set. The departments themselves pay for additional mobile equipment, station receivers and “Quick Call” equipment, of which more later. All of the participating out-of-county departments, except West Leyden and Williamstown, have bought radio equipment. Fourteen departments have functioning “QuickCall” and installations are presently being made in 20 others. In addition, Utica will soon install 14 sets within its own department. (Utica has 21 pieces of apparatus radio-equipped and Rome has 7.)

Viewed from the financial standpoint, Oneida County’s total investment, not including maintenance, has been $60,101. The Utica Fire Department and other departments which have purchased additional equipment, have spent a total of $28,400, some of which is reimbursable under the matching funds program of the Federal Civil Defense Administration.

The mutual aid annual budget for 1954 is $19,940 of which more than half goes for the salaries of Coordinator Bohner and Robert Mote, the full-time County Radio Supervisor, who is responsible for maintenance oi the system.

The Mechanics of the System

The electronics of fire service communications are usually a puzzle to most firefighters but in nearly every volunteer organization there are radio enthusiasts and “hams” willing and eager to lend a hand. In Oneida County, after getting the possible local advice on the engineering problems involved in installing a fire service network, the engineering data were checked with the manufacturer selected for the installation. The company made complete and detailed studies of the hilly county area, and concluded the best method to blanket it “communcatiomvise” was by placing the base antenna on the Utica fire station roof and erecting three repeater stations at recommended points. One therefore was installed at Paris Hill near the southern end of the county, the second near Glenmore in the northwestern corner of Oneida County, and the third on Starr Hill in the northeastern section.

The location of each repeater station, besides the requirement of being installed at a high geographical point in the county, was chosen after considering accessibility in both good and bad weather, availability of land, and nearness of an outside power source. The Use of the Starr Hill site was given to the county for the repeater station by New York State and the other two sites donated by private persons.

System Design

The system was designed so that:

  1. All operators of 2-way radios in the network located near the Utica base station can communicate directly with the Utica dispatcher without the signals being relayed by one of the repeater stations.
  2. Any of the system’s mobile 2-way radios beyond direct range of the Utica station can be used to talk to the Utica dispatcher as a result of signals being relayed by the nearest repeater station.
  3. Any operator of one of the network mobile stations can talk to any other operator in the county as a result of the signals being relayed by one, or simultaneously by all three repeater stations.

Each repeater covers a large portion of the county by itself. But because of the geographical terrain of the county it was necessary to have three repeater stations to cover the entire county. While the three repeater stations are used simultaneously under some conditions, the radio manufacturer’s engineers designed a method to de-activatc two of the repeaters farthest from the mobile unit that is transmitting, thus allowing the one communications repeater to operate alone. For example, if a Camden fire truck is nearest the Glenmore repeater station and has a radio message the Utica dispatcher can deactivate the Paris Hill and Starr Hill repeaters by using a remote control system of the “Quik-Call” line switching equipment to permit only the operation of the Glenmore repeater.

This map shows how the whole county is blanketed by the Oneida County Mutual Aid two-way radio system.Robert Mote, radio engineer for the Oneida County system, writes down a message while Chief Dispatcher A. Edward Rothenberg answers over the remote control microphone.

The base station (Utica) transmitterreceiver, is located only a few feet from the dispatcher’s desk and remote control console. Because this equipment is supplied primary power from an outside source, a complete gasoline-driven stand-by power supply has been built and installed ready at all times to furnish power in case of normal power failure.

Repeater stations, including radio equipment, antenna supports, and houses were installed as part of the manufacturer’s complete “package system.” Each repeater transmitter-receiver station is housed in a small cement floored building with gasoline-driven stand-by power supply. When power to a repeater station fails, the emergency supply takes over as a result of action of an automatic change-over unit. Loss of power from one repeater supplier has no effect on other repeater stations.

The “Quik-Call” System

“Quik-Call” is a Motorola trade name for its system used in this radio network. Actually two systems are employed, one for repeater control and one for blowing sirens at specified remote fire stations.

Three 2-position non-holding switches on the panel of the remote control console in Utica central office permit selective control operations of the repeater stations. Each switch corresponds to one repeater. When the dispatcher pushes one of the switches up, an electrical pulse containing two tones is superimposed on the transmitter carrier.

Although all three repeaters receive the pulse, only two are electronically designed to automatically de-activate as a result of the specific combination of “Quik-Call” tones being received. The third repeater station transmitter is unaffected by the combination of tones transmitted from the Utica station, and continues operating.

By pushing the same control panel key down, which transmits on the carrier frequency two different tones, the de-activated repeater transmitters are returned to operation.

Alongside of the control console at the base station is a push-button box which is the control facility for the second “Quik-Call” system of the Oneida County network. By pressing four buttons on this box, two pulses, one of approximately .75 of a second time duration and one of .50 of a second time duration, each containing two tones, are transmitted. Each “QuikCall”-equipped fire station has corresponding electronic equipment that reacts to a specific combination of tones, which when received, activate the remote fire station siren. By using two pulses, each carrying two tones, false calls are eliminated.

Many of the fire departments in the county system are volunteer units too small to keep one or more persons on hand continuously at the fire station. It is the general custom for someone who works near the engine house to have the keys to the building. When the siren is set off by “Quik-Call,” all volunteers report immediately to man the apparatus. The first to arrive radios to Utica that his department is ready for service. Utica then broadcasts whatever information is available about the fire. This procedure is particularly essential for efficient mutual aid operations.

If the fire is in a community within the Utica telephone exchange, the person calling for fire equipment can call the Utica dispatching center directly and the dispatcher will activate the community’s siren by “Quik-Call.” Should the fire occur outside the limits of the Utica telephone exchange, the person reporting the fire telephones a predetermined number to have the siren set off.

Should the volunteer company need assistance in fighting the fire, it reports its requirements to Utica over its 2-wav radio. By quickly referring to the comprehensive mutual aid chart at headquarters, the dispatcher can immediately activate the sirens in other villages near the fire where the volunteers are needed.

The Quik-Call button box on the dispatcher's desk in the Utica Fire Station control office makes it possible to remotely activate sirens at individual fire stations.

When all installations are completed in the county there will be a total of 105 mobile units, 4 portable handcarried transmitter-receivers, and 59 station houses equipped with receivers connected to alarm systems and actuated by selective calling. They may be actuated individually or simultaneously in one group call.

Whenever any individual station receiver is actuated by selective calling, the dispatcher at Utica headquarters immediately starts a recheck by telephone. This of course is much slower but it is the only means headquarters has of knowing that the call was received at the other end.

Such a system eliminates the com monplace method of calling up neigh boring fire forces by telephone and requiring them to stand-by for possible aid. It makes it possible to alert additional volunteers only when there is no doubt but that they are required, and yet allows them to be available when needed as rapidly as under the stand-by system. Obviously under this method volunteers lose less time from their work and less loss of sleep if the fire occurs at night.

Wherever the fire apparatus is located at their individual stations, on the road or fighting the fire—the operators can at any time communicate with the Utica control office or any or all other radio-equipped mobile units in the system. As a result of this facility for instantaneous comunications with nearly all other fire fighting equipment in the county, doctors, ambulances, additional fire forces and other necessary aid can be obtained quickly from even the remotest parts of the county. A call can be sent out to a number of fire departments near the point where the doctor or other aid is located, and the message quickly relayed from there by either personal contact or by a call over whatever wire communication facilities are available.

The system is so designed that if a mobile unit is transmitting and the Utica dispatcher wants to use the circuit for an emergency message, a precedence circuit, engineered into the system, permits the Utica station to take control.

The first large scale test of the system occurred on November 25, 1950, when snow and gales struck Oneida County with ferocity unequalled in recent years. Sleet and high winds broke telephone and pow er lines. Wire communications were virtually non-existent. At many points no means of message flow existed except over the county-wide radio network. It offered county officials undeniable proof of the immense potential and actual value of the Oneida County Mutual Aid Association F. M. 2-way radio system.

Since that time the county fire fighters have had occasion to prove the system’s value in both large scale fires and civil defense exercises.

Here is a more detailed explanation of the way the system works:

An operator in the Utica Central Fire Station alarm office receives a telephone notification of a fire in a neighboring community. He presses a button. At virtually the same moment a siren on top of the volunteer fire department’s station in Boonville, which is the nearest community, begins to wail. The volunteers in all walks suddenly lose their business identities and become firemen. They make for the fire house at top speed and are greeted by a flat metallic voice of a public-address unit:

“Boonville, you have a fire at Hawkinsville, in the village . . . Boonville, you have a fire at Hawkinsville, in the village . . . Boonville, you have a fire at Hawkinsville, in the village . . .” That 10-word message is repeated and repeated by radio speaker on the engine house wall. Soon the engine is en route to the fire and a member of its crew is acknowledging the call by radio. The Utica dispatcher stops repeating the message. Boonville is on its way. The Oneida County network scores again in its race with time.

Utica Department Dispatches Alarms

The mutual aid dispatcher, who is one of the regular Utica fire alarm staff paid by the City of Utica and for the moment doubling in brass, in pressing the button touched off an electrical impulse exactly as one does when the electric front door button is pushed. The siren in Boonville can be likened to the chimes which sound when the front door button is pressed, except that no wires link the mutual aid button and the siren. It is alt done by radio.

The Paris Hill repeater house showing the radio equipment installed inside.

The electrical impulse touched off when the button on the “Quik-Call” at fire control was moved was translated by special equipment into a pattern of radio signals. Special receiving apparatus in Boonville, attuned to that pattern but none other, picked up the combination of signals. Reversing the process of the Utica transmitter, the Boonville receiver converted the radio waves back into an electrical impulse. This tripped a siren mechanism and an alarm was sounded. The dispatcher, using voice radio this time, constantly announced the location of the fire to volunteers arriving at the fire house. If he desired to vary the message and give special instructions to the volunteers, he could do so.

Personnel and Maintenance

A. Edward Rothenberg is chief dispatcher for the County, by appointment of the County Board of Supervisors. He is also chief operator for the city of Utica. Because of the size and complexity of the system, a full-time County radio supervisor, Robert Mote, is employed to maintain the equipment. He has designed and constructed a complete radio repair shop and laboratory in a room near the main dispatching center in the Utica fire station, and equipped it with the necessary shop facilities to maintain the system.

In order to prevent radio equipment interruptions or breakdowns, Mote makes a monthly visit to each of the 45 mobile units in order to run tests of the sets. Preventive maintenance is highly essential in the efficient operation of any county radio network such as this. Among the equipment Mote has designed is a complete standby transmitter-receiver unit and power supply to function as a base station, should the primary equipment at any time be out of operation for maintenance. This replacement set is constructed of a Motorola 30-watt mobile unit that operates on the same frequencies as all the other mobile units in the system. The set is mounted above an a.c.-d.c. converter and installed in a steel housing built on casters so that it can be rolled any place it is needed.

Members of the Oriskany Falls Volunteer Fire Department, one of the 50-odd departments represented in the Oneida County radio communications system, respond to a fire.

Sponsors Say System Has Proved Self

Chief Leo Barry of Utica and County hire Coordinator Ward Bohner both express gratification at the way the Oneida County radio installation has turned out. Chief Barry writes: “After using radio in the fire service for several years and observing the increased efficiency that it has brought about—in that every request is only at arm’s length away and pressing a transmitter button brings immediate response to all your needs, I firmly believe that radio communication in the fire service is the greatest improvement in efficiency in that service since the change to motorized apparatus.”

Coordinator Bohner comments: “To me it (the System) has been and is the one thing which unites all the departments in our Mutual Aid Plan together. We are deeply indebted to the city of Utica, the Utica Fire Department, its Chief, Leo R. Barry, the Chief Dispatcher, A. Edward Rothenberg, and his dispatchers for their cooperation; their help and effort has made possible the efficiency which shows in the successful way in which the system operates. Even with our radio communications, we must have good dispatching with men trained for the job. And that we do have.”

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