Monday, April 11, 2011

Adventures in Trunked Radio -
Gary Harmon Edition

First things first - this week is National Public Safety Telelcommunicators Week. These professionals are tasked with receiving often fragmented information from hysterical, delusional and often clueless people and turning it into a cohesive informational road map with which to deploy and coordinate the activities of our nation's public safety responders - Police, Fire AND Emergency Medical Services.

They work long, convoluted hours, and with a few noteworthy exceptions are largely taken for granted or marginalized by those whom they serve. Returning to the Pittsburgh area has brought this point home for me rather well. Catching up with the system online, and monitoring local activity, has shown me that there are some areas of the region where everything about the system and its practitioners has changed for the better, and also some pockets of resistance where the dispatch profession is still - still - regarded as something anemically clerical in nature.

If you know a professional Telecommunicator, thank them for their service and commitment this week. Grand Junction's group of professionals will have new digs to ply their trade pretty soon - something largely regarded as a once-in-a career occurrence for most in the profession. Good for them.

A short blurb on the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel website caught my immediate attention this afternoon. Under the headline "GJ awarded money for radios", Sentinel reporter Gary Harmon managed, in four short paragraphs, to put forward at least two inaccuracies, several statements that were unclear, and one old, blatant falsehood that for me made a mockery of a significant event that impacts the future of communications in the rural areas of Mesa County.

The announcement that "Grand Junction" will receive nearly a million dollars to purchase new radios for fire agencies across the county (that is, outside of Grand Junction) was the first head-scratcher for me. What Mr. Harmon probably meant was the Grand Junction Regional Communication Center (GJRCC), operated by the City but serving all county public safety agencies, and which has been coordinating much of the efforts to fund the complete transition of the county's public safety agencies to the Colorado Digital Trunked Radio System (DTRS).

The next whopper was particularly onerous, as it repeats false information reported by the Sentinel as far back as August 2009, which is the last time I wrote about this topic in detail.
Quoting the Sentinel story:
The 800 MHz radios should allow all public-safety agencies to communicate on one frequency with less interruption or loss of service, officials said.

(Note: I can find no press release on the City's website that corresponds with the story quoting these un-named "officials".)

The Federal Communications Commission has mandated all agencies switch to that bandwidth by 2012 and the grant will take care of all the fire-safety agencies in Mesa County as part of an $8.9 million project for public safety across the county.

There is no "mandate" by the FCC or anyone else that public safety agencies abandon their existing radio spectrum for frequencies in the 800 Mhz band. What the FCC did do was to require that all public safety radio users in what is known as the VHF and UHF radio spectrum re-configure both their operating licenses and equipment so that they operate with less space between channels. This known as Narrowbanding, and the deadline for agencies across the country to complete the process is indeed January 1, 2013.

The administration of GJRCC may have decided not to utilize their existing VHF spectrum after the 1/1/13 deadline. If true, this is unfortunate for those very rural fire departments that are benefiting from this latest grant. Many of these departments have their own radio licenses and frequencies that they use for tactical purposes. These agencies may choose to go through with the narrowbanding process for their own frequencies. Their reasons can be summed up in the final misleading statement reported by the Sentinel. To be fair, they are quoting Sen. Mark Udall, although there is no press release on the Senator's website regarding this topic:
“The last thing we want to see is Colorado firefighters losing their calls in an emergency or not being able to communicate with other emergency workers,” Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo. said. “The wildfire season this year has already shaped up to be an aggressive one, making it all the more important that our public-safety officers have the proper equipment to safely do their jobs.”
In most wildland fire scenarios on or near public lands, one of the most important communications links is between local fire responders and the vast, specialized resources of the federal interagency fire system. Responders in this system utilize frequencies and radios in the VHF spectrum that have already been narrowbanded for several years.

There are numerous frequencies, such as common "work" channels, air operations channels, and air-to ground coordination channels, that are standard across the system nationwide. This dovetails with efforts to create a national framework of interoperability channels in several frequency bands for use by any agency that may find itself situated at a major incident - anywhere.

In short, the very radios that Mesa County's rural fire departments are slated to "replace" with these new radios are the very ones they will likely be depending upon to communicate with federal wildland fire resources during a major incident. To be sure, connections will be established so that a VHF and 800 Mhz network can be connected in some way to assist with interoperability efforts on a wide-area basis, but any local engine crew that is supporting a team of federal hotshots in the middle of nowhere is going to need their VHF radio.

Contrary to the ministrations of Gary Harmon and whoever was feeding him this crap, reports of the demise of radio spectrum other than 800 Mhz for public safety have been highly exaggerated. In fact, a significant number of public safety agencies in Colorado that have transitioned to the State DTRS have re-licensed their old VHF or UHF frequencies for narrowband use. I wonder why...

Thanks to all the Dispatchers out there.

Have a good week ahead.


1 comment:

John Linko said...


I just spent about 30 minutes trying to post a comment to your blog about the below story. What I wrote appears to have disappeared and I didn’t copy what I had written. I’m hoping it showed up on your end. Anyway, bottom line of what I was trying to say is I went to college at Mesa State back in the late 70s and still have friends in the Grand Junction area in PS. I think the Chief who gave the interview was well intentioned but mis-informed. It’s a good thing they want to get everyone on the DTRS but coverage is limited and DTRS site frequency pairs are limited. If everyone say on a large scale wildland fire wanted to talk on separate talk groups the system would be strained to capacity. It would make sense for them to narrow band and re-license their VHF frequencies and keep those radios in their trucks for small area communications. Let’s hope they have the foresight to do just that.



Arlington, TX