Rural firefighting: Solving the communication puzzle

Dedicated broadband for emergency responders is still years away, but there is technology available to boost your communication

The call comes in to your community's 911 public-safety answering point (PSAP) — your emergency communications or dispatch center. Lives, property or both are in peril and the call goes out to members of your department who jump into action. The needed resources are on their way.

But what if yours is a volunteer department serving a rural community? Did everyone get the call for response? Who's able to respond? What capabilities do they have — are they officers, drivers, EMTs or paramedics? Where are they coming from? 

With so many questions, how do you get the answers that you need?

When you need these kind of answers, you turn to Charles Werner, fire chief for the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire and Rescue Department. In addition to leading a fire department that actively embraces new technology, Chief Werner is considered one of the true subject-matter experts in our business when it comes to wireless communication. 

"When it's fully developed, D Block is going to fill a couple of voids for the fire service," Chief Werner said.

The hot topic in communications for the fire service today is certainly D Block — a nationwide broadband wireless communications system, that once built, will be dedicated to the voice, data and video communication needs of the fire service. 

"First, it's going to provide nationwide broadband wireless coverage, even to those areas that currently don't have commercial broadband coverage and may never have it," Chief Werner said. "The reality is that many rural areas of the U.S. will never have enough paying customers for those carriers to justify such coverage from a business perspective. And that's OK, because they are in business to make money and only after they cross that threshold can the fire service begin using those services because the coverage is there."

"Secondly," Werner said, "D Block will provide the fire service with a hardened system; one that is better capable of maintaining communication services in the face of power outages, negative impacts from weather events and other natural disasters. As the components of D Block come online, there will be greater emphasis on this aspect of system design than that which we see from the commercial vendors. 

"It's not that those companies don't care about their customers; it's just that their business models accept that a hurricane can blow down a couple of wireless towers or dislodge equipment from a tower, but in a couple of hours or days they can have the problem resolved. Public safety agencies like the fire service obviously don't have that luxury. Our systems need to stay up and running."

In the meantime
Werner said that for most of the country, D Block is at least two to three years in the future. For the more rural areas, it may be more like three to five years before D Block comes to the neighborhood.

"There are many commercial wireless solutions that are out there today that departments can use to create a hybrid approach that helps them serve their communities," he said.

So what are some of those available technologies? Let's start with wireless devices.

Today's smartphones and tablets provide incredible cost-effective computing and communication solutions for departments of all sizes. A typical land mobile radio (LMR) costs $3,000 to $4,000 on average.

Think how many smartphone or tablets could be purchased for personnel for the cost of one LMR unit. And the good news is that there are already a host of applications for both the Android and Apple operating systems that can meet your needs and more arrive daily.

There's an app for that
Many of your people already have a smartphone, tablet or both. All they need is for you to identify which applications they need on their device; once you connect the apps to your information, you're in business.

Applications like IamResponding, can enable personnel to receive call information — type and description of call, location and mapping — on their wireless device.

Even better, these applications enable two-way communication. When they get the call on their device, they can indicate if they are responding or not, along with a wealth of information that can make an agency's response better. Wouldn't it be great to:

  • Know immediately if you have a full crew on the way, or if you need to page additional personnel;
  • Stop waiting for members who are not on their way, and stop leaving the station just as others are coming around the corner;
  • Know who is responding to the station, scene or any other location; and
  • Know what capabilities personnel are bringing to the emergency, such as officer, driver, EMT, Paramedic, HazMat, etc.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. There are other applications, such as CADPage (Android OS) and Active911 (Apple OS) that can give you and your command staff the ability to scan you department's radio traffic from anywhere you have broadband access, be that across town or across country. 

Finally, there's Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) using a bridging system. VoIP with bridging can increase your radio footprint, especially your ability to have multiple organizations with multiple LMR frequencies working together on an incident.

Here are some basics about VoIP with bridging:

  • It is a communications endpoint aggregator
  • It translates outgoing traffic from one type of endpoint device to another, such as a handheld VHF radio to an incident commander's IP telephone.
  • Bridging devices typically use an analog voice signal as the basis for interchange between LMR systems.
  • Endpoints are either directly connected to the bridging solution or connected to a remote-bridging device via another network.

Bridging gaps
Why look at a VoIP with bridging system? Because interoperability needs have pushed the capabilities of many traditional public safety communications networks, especially in rural areas, to their limit. 

Today's commercial broadband services and wireless device technology have made this option practical and affordable for a broad range of departments. These technological advances can enable many organizations to integrate wireless devices and Internet Protocol‐based voice and data systems with traditional LMR and dispatch systems from various manufacturers. 

Together these communication tools can provide even the smallest fire service agencies with a cost-effective solution to their need to communicate with other agencies and to link disparate communications technologies with conventional equipment.

For more, see the Department of Homeland Security's "Public Safety Communications Evolution."

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