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Firefighters’ distrust of digital radio system grows

Mobile Radio Technology (April 1, 2008)

On April 16, 2007, firefighter Kyle Wilson was part of a crew dispatched to fight a residential fire in Woodbridge, Va. He died in the line of duty.

A detailed report on the incident recently released by Prince William County Department of Fire and Rescue concluded that problems associated with the use of the county’s Motorola digital trunked radio system contributed to the tragedy. Issues reported by other firefighters during that incident, which was further complicated by strong winds, ranged from signal distortion and transmission failure to radios displaying “out of range” signals.

Fire safety advocates now are encouraging fire departments across the country to study the incident in hopes that future tragedies could be avoided. Prince William County’s fire department, through further tests, concluded that digital portable radios are “extremely vulnerable to poor environmental conditions and interference of digital noise from ambient sources, which negatively impact the ability of emergency personnel to effectively communicate.”

A handful of fire and police departments, fearing the loss of lives, have opted to continue using analog systems even when the rest of their county’s emergency personnel are using digital trunking systems.

The common complaint, which most affects fire departments, concerns the digital vocoder’s inability to differentiate between a voice transmission and background noise – whether a chain saw, sprayed water or personal alarm. Background noise renders the voice transmission distorted and often unintelligible. “In most cases, it is a very political and sensitive position to abandon expensive technology and go back to something that is old,” said Daryl Jones, owner and president of Telecommunications Engineering Associates, which manages public safety systems throughout the San Mateo area in California. “But many agencies are finding that complaints from line personnel, both in fire and police, are so significant.”

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