How to Solve Radio System Glitches Before They Happen

By Bob Smith
Director of Strategic Development, APCO International

These days it's not unusual to come across headlines that read "Radio System Has Too Many Glitches," or "Responders Say New Radio System Doesn't Work." As consolidation trends grow across the country and as the technology of public safety communications systems evolve, more and more jurisdictions are developing new radio systems or upgrading current systems.

There are bugs in any new program or system and the law of averages says that the more technical the program the more issues there will be; and communications infrastructure can certainly get technical.

There are lots of ways to address issues that may occur in a new or upgraded radio system. Some are cheap and easy while others are complex and expensive, requiring intensive resource allocation. But the cheapest, simplest and least stressful way to address issues with a new or upgraded radio system is to address them before they happen.

This is accomplished with a lot of preplanning and research during the development phase, long before the first coaxial is bought or the first antennae is mounted. If you're looking to buy a new system or modify an existing one, taking a few minutes to ensure some of the following take place in the planning stages will make life a lot easier for everyone involved and go a long way toward ensuring your system meets the needs of everyone in the community, both responder and citizen alike.

Assemble the Masses
Buying a new radio system or upgrading an existing one is something that can be accomplished by one agency or department – but only if that one agency or department is the only one that will ever communicate on that system. This situation is unlikely these days given the strong emphasis on interoperability in every facet of public safety.

So don't try to go it alone. Involve everyone that will ever have anything to do with the system, not just your fire department. From other end-users such as EMS, 9-1-1 and law enforcement agencies to support services such as IT or radio technicians that will install and ultimately maintain the system, everyone should be allowed to provide input on the system and to voice their needs. This will ensure that you cover all the bases and garner a lot of buy-in early, which eliminates some heartache later.

DIY is not the Way to Go!
My Dad once gave me a useful piece of advice when it came to do-it-yourself projects – If it's going to blow up, burn the house down or otherwise kill you, find somebody that knows what they're doing! That's good advice whether you're remodeling a house or remodeling a communications system. Agencies should invest the funds to contract a professional to oversee the process and provide advice during the implementation, whether buying a new system or upgrading an existing one. The industry offers a multitude of consultants and companies that can assist agencies with this process. Some are more expensive than others obviously, but contracting a professional that is knowledgeable in system design is a worthwhile investment and should be budgeted into any radio system modifications.

Do Your Homework
Contrary to some current marketing gimmicks, there is no such thing as an "off-the-shelf" radio system. You're not going to be able to say, "I have X number of personnel, X number of apparatus and need to cover X number of square miles" and get a useful system handed to you with nice red bow. Jurisdictions vary in their needs for communications just like they do in other areas.

Departments will have different needs and issues even from the department next door. Variables will include topography – mountainous vs. flat, demographics – urban vs. rural, and a variety of geography issues such as skyscrapers vs. shoreline among others. Each of these will set specific need parameters on a system that must be addressed individually. And these needs are further complicated by details such as the needs of law enforcement vs. the needs of the fire service (current NFPA standards that require a specific number of portable radios for fire departments for example). So a little bit of homework will go a long way.

Conducting a Needs Analysis to determine exactly what your new system will need to be capable of (trunked vs. conventional for example), having a propagation study performed to determine where tower sites should be built and what type of spectrum you will need (such as UHF vs. 800Mhz) and a few other simple steps will provide you a wealth of information as you build out your system's specifications.

Pest Control
Again, any new or modified system will have bugs. Plan to address these bugs in advance. When budgeting for these upgrades be sure to include some level of contingency funding to address any "glitches" that may develop along the way or in the first few months of use. It is not uncommon for a new system to require as much as an additional quarter of the original purchase price to be spent in the first two to three years months to address unexpected bugs. Obviously this will depend on how thorough your planning is in advance and how well you and your system design consultant did your homework.

Plan B (C, D, E or even J)
Continuity of service is paramount in public safety. New radio systems or not, your agency must carry on their day-to-day operations. A sudden lack of communications will seriously impact your ability to do this. So be prepared. If you're replacing an older system, find a way to overlap the old system's phase out with the new system's phase in. This will allow a certain level of redundancy should a major failure develop or simply allow users to switch back to the old system should the need develop for some level of "tweaking". Having both systems operational will prevent the loss of communications entirely.

Ultimately, these modifications are for one simple purpose – to ensure we are offering the highest level of service possible to the communities we serve. Change is rarely easy but its level of difficulty can be mitigated. Taking a few minutes to follow some of these tips well in advance will allow your agency to ensure your new radio system or the upgrades to your current system are positive and not a whole new set of challenges to be dealt with. 

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