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First Responder Radios Are Evolving With The Times
Author: Mark Tesh, Harris Corporation
Copyright: 9-1-1 Magazine, Feature Content
Emerging radio technology is more capable, more flexible, and tougher than legacy solutions. The next generation of radios, although similar in many ways to existing equipment, introduces a number of innovations that make them uniquely well-suited to the changing needs of first responders.
During an emergency situation today, a person would certainly be more likely to use a cell phone, rather than an outdated rotary phone, to call 9-1-1. This may seem like common sense, but most public safety agencies (who are responsible for responding to those emergency calls) are still operating on communications technologies that were state-of-the-art in the 1980s. In today’s world, antiquated technology is not just a nuisance for those using it; it’s also becoming a matter of effective and efficient response during emergency situations. For example, communication dead zones have become all too familiar, and put public safety personnel at undue risk. The list of risks associated with ongoing use of outdated technology goes on and on.
However, technologies are emerging in public safety that mimic the consumer industry’s software-focused models. The hardware, or “box,” is less important than applications and capabilities that can simply be enhanced or added through software updates. New radio frequency standards, with better spectrum efficiency that enable more users to share valuable spectrum, are also a growing trend. First responders understand the need to update their communication technology, but the best path is not always clear, and no one wants an inefficient or obsolete solution.
Above Right: Calgary EMS Tactical Paramedic Grant Therrien waits for a call on the tarmac outside #1 station in downtown Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Photo: Kevin J. Link/9-1-1 magazine file photo
The answer that makes the most sense for first responders is surprisingly simple: select a solution that provides for effective and efficient upgrades and enhancements as technology evolves, thereby maximizing a long-term investment.
Enter the next-generation of public safety technologies. Emerging radio technology is more capable, more flexible, and tougher than legacy solutions. The next generation of radios, although similar in many ways to existing equipment, introduces a number of innovations that make them uniquely well-suited to the changing needs of first responders. Some of these innovations include:
- Durability: Considering that the technology in everything from smartphones to refrigerators is rapidly advancing, portable radios, which are quite literally a lifeline for public safety users, should be no exception. Keep in mind that, while most radio manufacturers today are investing in more reliable and durable designs, many are still missing the mark in some areas. For instance, even some newer radios, though they excel in certain aspects, have not eliminated pockets or cavities around the controls that can fill with dirt or water and unexpectedly prevent an important control from working. This is not optimal design today and certainly won’t meet the high immersion standards of tomorrow.
- Size: As anyone who carries a radio all day, every day, can tell you, when it comes to enhancing user productivity, the advantages of a compact, lightweight and ergonomic radio are all-important. The next-gen radio is intuitively designed to feature top and front displays, distinctly contoured buttons and natural grip points that make it easy to handle, even when wearing gloves.
- Software: Software features that used to be exclusive – like GPS, Bluetooth® or Wi-Fi programming – have become expected by users. Just like other smart devices, radios benefit from software updates as new capabilities are added. In the recent past the only way to load new software was to physically connect to the radio, but with the newer connectivity options now available it is possible to update software seamlessly and wirelessly.
- Audio Quality: This might be the most exciting, and interesting, innovation area for first responders. For years, analog voice was optimized for best intelligibility, though not necessarily the most accurate sound. As trunking evolved, and voice became digitized, software vocoders were optimized for ease of transmission and intelligibility. Now, as the use of broadband voice connection approaches, with better data rates, public safety radios can now support HD audio. Users who for years have experienced voice that was 'unintelligible' can suddenly enjoy high-quality audio from a portable radio.
- User Interfaces: The last thing a busy first responder needs is to be forced to stop and think about which button to press so that their radio does what they need. Technology parallels are frequently drawn between emergency radios and smartphones, but the user interface on these comparable devices is anything but. The presence of many small and subtle icons on a smartphone, all of which are activated with the same kind of touch, is not an appropriate display for first responders. In public safety, a different approach is needed; one that makes it easy to perform common tasks and displays only critical information.
Radio Frequency Capability
For years, analog talkaround was the benchmark for traditional voice. Talkaround is generally a simplex frequency used for units to talk directly to one another. Over time, it was optimized for simplicity and seamless fringe performance, and in a disaster when all infrastructure is offline, simple talkaround may be the only option. So rather than abandoning old-fashioned talkaround in favor of digital communications, it’s important to equip first responders with radios that are, above all, frequency-agile. As technology migrates toward broadband and cell phone quality voice, new P25 radios still need to transmit the highest power conventional talkaround possible. It’s a solution that’s becoming more and more prevalent as circuit components become smaller and more powerful. What does that mean? Well, how long has it been since you cared whether your smartphone used 700 or 1800 MHz? The design of smartphones has changed, allowing a wide range of frequencies to be used. There is no reason public safety radios shouldn't support diverse frequencies that enable responders to talk to neighboring counties and jurisdictions. As history has shown us, a failure to communicate between departments can be a real issue in an emergency situation. So as the cost of multiband technology drops, manufacturers must produce radios with more bands that allow unprecedented inoperability. If the manufacturer will pre-program the Department of Homeland Security's National Interoperability Frequencies, that’s even better. After all, it’s the recommendation of the federal government that these frequencies be programmed in first responder radios at all times, rather than waiting until a disaster is imminent.
LTE is Coming
Agencies nationwide are working to roll out broadband voice and data to first responders. Yet, while broadband is moving into the first responder toolbox, it’s not intended to immediately replace the use of traditional LMR communications. Many jurisdictions are looking for radios that have an optional, replaceable LTE transmitter, allowing flexibility to upgrade or change as broadband service comes into play and becomes more powerful. Then, whenever a system that supports LTE is available, users can simply activate the option. Or if they ever need to change broadband contracts to a new service supplier, they can simply change the LTE board. Meanwhile, first responders can continue to use the radio on their existing LMR system without retraining on new equipment.
Above: No longer a technology of the future, the Harris XL-200P is the smallest LTE-capable land mobile radio available today, and gives first responders an edge when it is needed most.
Whether you administer a public-safety communication system, manage purchase contracts or carry a radio on a daily basis, the path to making a decision on updating your communication technology to next-gen radios is becoming clearer. Combining tried-and-true methods, along with new tools that combine hardware, smarter and faster processors and software features, enables first responders to move toward a more effective communications environment. The key is to choose a platform that is optimized for today's trunking users, while allowing migration to new data connectivity. This allows users trained on existing voice systems to intuitively integrate LTE and broadband technology, while mitigating any uncertainty about the future of LTE and broadband. All of which leads to increased first responder preparedness.
Mark Tesh is a Senior Product Manager, Advanced Development, with Harris Corporation, charged with adopting new communication technology into useful tools for first responders. His career has focused on improving and extending the capabilities of both radios and smartphones, and the interplay of new technology with users.