THE FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION
Imagining the efficient delivery of fire prevention and control services without two-way mobile communication is almost impossible. Indeed, we largely take for granted the availability of radio communications. But the ability to engage in two-way radio communication does not magically appear.
The land mobile radio systems operated by fire departments throughout the United States are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The Communications Act of 1934 requires all persons, fire departments as well as television broadcast stations, to obtain a license from the FCC to operate radio transmitters. Under the Communications Act, the FCC is also responsible for allocating portions of the radio spectrum for various communication uses and classes of stations and for establishing the rules, regulations and eligibility criteria governing the operation of the various classes of stations.
Radio spectrum overview
The radio spectrum is divided principally into several functional categories. Four major categories are fixed (the use of radio to communicate between two permanent locations), mobile, broadcast and satellite. The frequencies available for mobile radio communication used in connection with fire fighting and emergency medical service are derived from the frequency bands allocated for land mobile operations: 30-50 MHz, 450-470 MHz, 470-512 MHz (in certain major metropolitan areas) and 806-902 MHz. Allocations of spectrum above 950 MHz, the so-called ‘microwave” spectrum, are available to meet the fixed radio communication requirements of the fire service and other users.
The land mobile use of the radio spectrum began with the frequency assignments derived from the 30-50 MHz frequency band and has proceeded upwards to the higher frequency bands as a result of technological advances and the development of congestion, precluding interference-free channels, in the lower frequency band(s).
Each of the major land mobile frequency bands is divided to meet the mobile radio requirements of various governmental agencies and private industry. Each band includes two principal suballocations: the frequencies set aside for persons who provide for-hire radio communications and the frequencies set aside for persons who operate land mobile radio systems for internal government agency or business communication requirements. The latter is commonly referred to as the private land mobile radio service (PLMRS) allocation. The PLMRS is comprised of four or five (depending on the frequency band) major service groups, including the public safety radio services.
The fire radio service is one of the several public safety radio services. The mobile radio frequency assignments allocated to the fire radio service are available only to those entities that satisfy the eligibility criteria set out in the FCC’s Rules and Regulations. Some frequencies are assigned exclusively to the fire radio service and others are shared with other public safety radio services, such as the police radio service. As a general rule, channels in public safety radio services are not shared with persons eligible in the other major service groups of the PLMRS, such as the industrial or land transportation radio services. The reason for this is that the FCC recognizes the priority nature of fire radio service and other public safety radio service mobile communications.
Licensing a mobile radio system is a critical and immediate concern of almost all fire departments. The process begins after a fire department has determined the scope of its mobile radio requirements. This generally involves a determination of the geographic area within which its mobile radio operations exist, the selection of a tower or building where the base station transmitter facility will be located, the preparation of an application and a request for evidence of frequency coordination.
Frequency coordination is intended to minimize interference to existing and proposed systems in order to provide an applicant with the clearest available frequency. (Editor’s note: For more information, see Chief Robert Simpson’s article on frequency coordination elsewhere in this issue.) The applicant typically prepares FCC Form 400, soon to be changed to FCC Form 574, and submits the application and frequency recommendation from the International Municipal Signal Association (IMSA) to the licensing division of the FCC’s Private Radio Bureau which is located in Gettysburg, Pa. If everything is in order, the license is granted in approximately three to six weeks. Upon receipt of the license, the fire department is authorized to operate its communications facilities.
Changes and renewals
A licensed mobile radio system often must be modified to reflect changing communication requirements. However, authority to modify a system requires the licensee to submit an application and, more than likely, evidence of frequency coordination to the FCC in order to obtain a modified license.
Additionally, licensees are also obligated to submit an application for renewal within 90 days of the expiration of the five-year license term. Renewal applications are prepared on FCC Forms 405-A. The commission also grants special temporary authorizations in the event a licensee is confronted with a communications emergency and must change the parameters of its system’s operations or (in extraordinary circumstances) operate a new system.
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The FCC’s rules and regulations governing the use of land mobile frequency assignments undergo continuous scrutiny and revision. Basic allocation policy decisions are also subject to review by the FCC. On the average, 25 proposals are introduced every year by the FCC which impact on the use of spectrum by persons eligible for assignment in the fire radio service. These proposals are presented in either a notice of proposed rule making (NPRM) or notice of inquiry (NOI). NPRMs entail specific proposed rule amendments, while NOIs are intended to ascertain views on major policy directions.
Many of these proposals impact the fire service. Some examples include the proposal to authorize extended construction and implementation periods for new, large land mobile radio systems on frequency assignments above 806 MHz; the proposal to permit the states to assign public safety radio service frequencies to state and local government agencies which would, in turn, make usage assignments among various state or local agencies (fire, police, highway maintenance, etc.); the proposal to permit the industrial and land transportation radio services to share public safety radio service assignments below 470 MHz (which was ultimately rejected); the numerous related proposals on how the 250 “reserve” channel pairs in the frequency bands 806-821 MHz and 851-866 MHz will be suballocated and made available for assignment; and the establishment of a new low power television service.
The relatively large number of FCC proceedings and the divergent interests of the increasingly numerous, affected parties underscore the importance of the Communications Committee of the International Association of Fire Chiefs. The FCC has long recognized the critical contributions of mobile communications to fire fighting activities. However, it is continually necessary to remind the FCC of this fact and to apprise the commission of the specific requirements of the fire service and of the impact of particular proposed rule amendments.
Maintaining the fire service’s visibility before the FCC is especially important at this time. The availability of spectrum to meet the growth in the mobile radio communication requirements of the fire service is not a certainty. The currently available land mobile spectrum may be completely assigned over the next decade in the major metropolitan areas, according to a recent FCC projection.
Moreover, the magnitude of mobile radio communication requirements in the public safety radio services has declined relative to the industrial, particularly the general business, radio services. This is not to suggest that the mobile radio communications requirements of the fire service have not grown and become more diverse, because they have. However, the utility and value of mobile radio communication is now fully appreciated by almost all of the major industrial, agricultural and commercial sectors of our nation. And these other services have grown much more rapidly than the public safety radio services because of the commercial users capability to commit to the purchase and installation of new radio systems
The IAFC Communications Committee is structured to perform three basic functions: (1) Keep the members of the fire service aware of the FCC’s proposals and decisions; (2) Maintain and advance the radio communication interests of the fire service by participating in FCC NPRM and NOI proceedings; and (3) Provide educational and informational services concerning radio communications to members of the fire service. In addition, IAFC representatives, in consultation with the communications committee, sometimes meet with FCC staff members and commissioners to discuss matters of special significance. The IAFC is also a member of the Land Mobile Communications Council (LMCC) which functions to advance the position and interests of the land mobile community, as a whole, in major FCC allocation proceedings.
Mobile radio communication capability is practically indispensable to the safe and efficient delivery of fire prevention and control services. Continued high visibility in FCC proceedings and related activities through the IAFC are equally indispensable to maintaining the priority status of the mobile radio communication requirements of the fire service.
Martin Berkovici, a partner in the Washington, D.C. law firm of Keller and Heckman, is general counsel to the International Association of Fire Chiefs. Douglas larrett is an associate with Heckman and Jarrett.