FCC bandwidth reduction weakens firefighter radios

Fire and police departments rely on high-power radios to communicate effectively while responding to 911 calls. However, a new mandate by the Federal Communications Commission has limited the reach of those wireless devices, in some cases, hampering their effectiveness during emergency calls.

According to a FCC spokeswoman, the organization is requiring every public safety department nationwide to convert its wireless radio system by Jan. 1, 2013.

In March, Elkhart County’s 38 police and fire departments transferred to the limited bandwidth model, ten months ahead of schedule. While the majority of emergency agencies reported a smooth transition, a select few weren’t as lucky.

"You could hear the difference every time a vehicle or a firefighter would communicate with dispatch. It was more muffled, you had to definitely speak slower so you could be understandable,” Bristol Fire Department Asst. Chief Fred Genslinger said.

In the months leading-up to the county-wide shift, the already cash-strapped department retrofitted all sixty of its wireless radios and pagers. The job, which included the installation of new equipment as well, cost Bristol taxpayers more than $12,000. “Disappointing,” Genslinger said, “we fixed something that wasn’t broken and now things don’t work at all.”

The problem climaxed on July 5, when firefighters were dispatched to a house fire in the 53000 block of Pheasant Ridge Drive, about two miles west of downtown Bristol. There radio connectivity was so weak, Bristol Fire Chief Fay Kemp was forced to use her own cellular phone to request more water tankers be sent to the fire scene.

"There’s stress involved with not knowing if I’m going to have communication with my dispatch center. That’s my lifeline when I go out on an emergency call,” Genslinger added.

The conversion, called narrowbanding, is positioned to reduce radio bandwidth levels from 25 to 12.5 mHz. Although the shift is expected to shrink signal coverage by 10 to 15 percent, commercial radio technicians say the move is necessary in this ever-growing technological world.

"I think the move the FCC made had to happen. We had to have more channels out there. More and more people are using radios, pagers and other wireless technology, so you have to make more frequencies available so it's not as congested,” Gary Stover, a government account specialist with Elkhart-based Emergency Radio Service said.

When asked about the potential for compromising side effects, the FCC said a number of factors could be hindering Bristol’s signal strength. For one, a handful of counties across northern Indiana, including St. Joseph, LaGrange and Noble, have yet to implement the narrowband method, enabling the potential for interference.

"Until everyone actually migrates to narrowband, it's really a hard story to get a clear picture of where the problems will actually lie,” Stover added.

The FCC tells NewsCenter 16, rolling geography, dense foliage and improperly calibrated equipment are other common catalysts for poor radio performance. However, if the narrowbanding mandate is found to be the root of Bristol’s signal snafu, the city will be tasked with installing booster towers across its jurisdiction. That project would include a hefty price tag, in the tens of thousands.

"Money is tight, the economy is down, budgets are being cut; we operate on a shoestring budget the way it is and we have to watch every penny that we put out. This is truly the last thing that we need,” Genslinger concluded.

The Bristol Fire Department’s radio supplier is busy inspecting the agency’s communication system, but as of this story’s publication, had yet to pinpoint a solution.

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