Federal mandate forces North Whatcom fire district to replace radios

Published on Wed, Aug 24, 2011 by Jeremy Schwartz

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North Whatcom Fire and Rescue (NWFR) officials could end up spending up to $250,000 to comply with federal regulations forcing them to use specific technology in their emergency response radios.

By January 1, 2013, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will require all public safety and law enforcement agencies in the U.S. to switch their radios over to “narrowband” technology, which the commission says will allow room on national bandwidths for more communication channels. Most public safety agencies currently rely on wideband technology, which allows a radio signal to travel farther than with narrowband radios but takes up more space on the radio channel spectrum.

According to the FCC, the country is simply running out of space for emergency and law enforcement radio channels. They hope the switch to narrowband will help remedy this problem.

As part of the nationwide push, emergency law enforcement agencies across Whatcom County, including NWFR and the county sheriff’s office, will have to switch their radios to narrowband technology by the 2013 deadline or face penalties from the FCC. Radios that are designed to operate with wideband technology, as most of NWFR’s are, cannot communicate with narrowband radios, and vice versa.

At the August 18 NWFR board of fire commissioners meeting, Fire District 4 chief Bill McLaughlin and NWFR chief Tom Fields explained what the narrowband mandate will mean for District 4 and North Whatcom. With the recent service consolidation of the two districts, they will share the costs of switching the districts’ radios to narrowband technology.

“We have no choice,” Fields said. “We have to have [the narrowband] radios operating by January 1, 2013.”

NWFR needs to spend at least $177,000 to replace just the districts’ radios that are not narrowband compatible, McLaughlin said. This includes the portable radios that individual firefighters carry, the mobile radios in the district staff cars and fire engines and the radios at each fire station.

Some of the districts’ radios are currently narrowband compatible, so not all have to be replaced, McLaughlin said. However, this route could cause issues with firefighters having to learn how to operate multiple makes and models of radios, which could put undue pressure on the districts’ training officers, he explained.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) will also expect North Whatcom fire crews to switch over to a specific range of frequencies and be able to talk with law enforcement agencies with the narrowband radios, Fields said. The DHS set up these frequency zones to facilitate communication between all of the law enforcement and public safety agencies in a given area. While all mobile radios will not have to be replaced, since some are currently narrowband compatible, the older models would not be able to switch to the specific frequency zones.

McLaughlin also presented a $249,000 option, which would replace all the districts’ radios with a unit from a single manufacturer. While more expensive, this route would simplify the switch over to narrowband technology, McLaughlin said.

NWFR would have to amend its budget and most likely move money from the apparatus replacement fund to pay for the radio replacements, Fields said. McLaughlin said making the switch to narrowband will take several months to install and program. All the districts’ wideband equipment could not be sold in the country because the FCC’s narrowband mandate will render it obsolete. 

All federal communications grants that might help the district pay for the switch to narrowband typically go to law enforcement agencies, Fields said. The law enforcement agencies use the money to comply with the DHS’s mandate that all such agencies need to be able to easily communicate with each other, which requires radio upgrades, Fields explained.

Though Fields did not specifically ask for a final decision from the board, he emphasized the danger in waiting until the last minute. He said multiple public safety agencies scrambling to switch to narrowband within the next year could deplete the number of radios that are available.

“The longer we delay, the harder and more complicated it will be to meet the deadline,” Fields said.

The commissioners asked if buying a large amount of radios at the same time would include some sort of bulk discount, but McLaughlin said the $249,000 figure he presented already includes a 40 percent discount.

The NWFR fire commissioners agreed the money must be spent and that the $249,000 option, while more expensive, would be the best choice. They thought forcing the districts’ firefighters to train with multiple types of radios would be too difficult.

The board of commissioners authorized Fields to spend no more than $250,000 to purchase new radios, but this decision did not represent the board’s permission to buy the radios immediately. Rather, the board directed Fields and McLaughlin to work out the details of the purchase.