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How to buy in-cab radios for fire trucks

Here’s what you need to know when specifying a new truck or bringing an old rig’s communication into the 21st century


Although hard to imagine now, there was a time when fire departments operated without radios. The radio, almost more than any other piece of public safety equipment, has become the most vital tool we use in providing services to the public.

Regardless of the department’s size, good planning before making contact with potential vendors will go a long way to ensuring that your new radios meet your operational requirements.

The International Association of Fire Chiefs published “Radio Communications for the Fire Service: A Planning Guide for Obtaining the Communications System You Need for Enhanced Safety and Emergency Preparedness” that contains a wealth of information for this purpose.

The IAFC guide, produced with input and insights from fire service experts, shows how to assemble a work committee to conducting a needs assessment as well as implementation and personnel training. The guide has a somewhat handheld-radio perspective, however the guiding principles are very much the same for planning and purchasing in-cab radios.

Project 25
For the uninitiated, the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officers developed the APCO P25 standard; APCO representing the public safety technical community and the Telecommunications Industry Association.

Their goal was to create a standard enabling different radio manufacturers to build equipment that could operate together. The hope was that this would introduce competition into the market and help control costs.

Prior to the P25 standard, each manufacturer had proprietary digital radios that could interoperate only with like radios. The P25 standard continues to provide direction for radio manufacturers and users as communication technologies become integrated; systems that enable a smartphone to operate like a two-way radio and vice versa is one example.

But, it is no magic-bullet standard.

The P25 standard does not address any operational or interoperability needs; the standard does not provide a fire department with interoperability unless it is planned for.

A lone agency on P25 is no more interoperable than being on a UHF system trying to interoperate with a department on VHF. P25 only provides manufacturers with a common digital language for the radios and system infrastructures.

Key word search
Although all radios today offer some level of interoperability, it is important to research this before making a purchase decision because P25 is the standard for public safety mission-critical communications.

Can the radio communicate with other P25 radios provided by different manufacturers operating on the same RF spectrum (UHF, VHF, low-band, 800-MHz, etc.)? Can the radio operate in multiple frequency bands for interoperability? Does the radio meet the P25 standard for Common Air Interface?

When looking for your next in-cab radios for fire apparatus, the following are some of the key features radio manufacturers offer — many are producing radios that are compliant with P25 Phase 2.

  • Compatibility with Motorola System v 7.x, Motorola Astro and SMARTNET II/SmartZone radio systems.
  • Supports all protocols (Phase I & II, Motorola SMARTNET II/SmartZone, FM Analog) and available simultaneously.
  • Advanced P25 features such as authentication and over-the-air-rekeying.
  • Industry-standard encryption capabilities: AES and DES-OFB.
  • Conventional vote scan is standard.
  • Supports MDC-1200 and GE-Star signaling.
  • Over-the-air programming so users can program radios in the field.
  • Enhanced radio security using software and hardware system keys.
  • Programming software that provides fleet management of radios as well as profile templates.

What’s available
Realm’s KNG Series mobile is the radio industry’s first mobile radio with a touch screen display and is available in four frequency bands and two power options, 50 or 100 watt. The color touch screen display solves many issues seen in existing mobile radio control heads. The radio has an intuitive menu system that enables the user to fully customize the menu to fit their everyday needs.

The Harris Unity XG-100M full-spectrum radio provides access to both digital APCO P25 secure and analog FM communications across VHF, UHF and 700/800 MHz bands, scanning across all bands, voice modes and encryption types at the same time. The XG-100M delivers end-to-end encrypted digital voice communications making it P25 Phase 2 ready.

The Viking VM600 mobile radio from EF Johnson Technologies is a P25 Phase 2-compliant mobile radio that includes a unique electroluminescent display that provides better control screen visibility in daylight, with sunglasses on, and from any angle.

The APX 1500 from Motorola provides seamless interoperability and extended range. It offers a compatible APX O2 control head and features like intelligent lighting and an enlarged multi-function knob.

Though much has changed about what the radio in the apparatus cab can do from a technical perspective, one of the biggest advancements has been in the driver/operator’s ability to use the radio once they leave the cab. Advances in wireless technology enable the driver to have clear, consistent and continuous communication 100 feet or more away from the radio in the cab.

Firecom’s wireless portable intercom system consists of headsets that offer full-duplex communication with hearing protection and noise-canceling microphone technology.

It interfaces with virtually any radio through mobile radio interface cables and includes all necessary chargers and components. The system uses a proprietary portable battery supply and can support up to 12 wireless headsets at a time.

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.