This week’s Advocate is made up of a series of shorter pieces covering items I think the public-safety community should to be aware of, starting with how upcoming wildfires, hurricanes, tornados, floods in the east, and severe drought in the west will potentially increase the number of incidents and affect first-responders’ ability to handle them efficiently.
Then we will look at the new National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) standard for portable radios and speaker/microphones for withstanding the extreme conditions often faced by firefighters. Having bet on NFPA-certification, L3Harris appears to be the first vendor to build a fully-functional portable with multiband Land Mobile Radio (LMR) and FirstNet capabilities that should comply with the NFPA standard.
In a virtual event this week, Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR) will be discussing its accomplishments and looking at some of the companies that were awarded grants to work on various forms of public-safety communications.
Also, the Department of Commerce’s (DOC) National Telecommunications and Information Agency (NTIA), which oversees The FirstNet Authority, announced availability of “up-to-date mapping” of where there is and is not broadband coverage in the United States today.
Other topics include the Safer Buildings Coalition (SBC) No Noise Task Force, of which I am a member, that will be examining in-building communications for first-responders and their effect on the noise floor and he confusing T-Mobile statement that its network now supports full pre-emption (Wireless Priority Service (WPS), not the same pre-emption and priority public safety experiences on the FirstNet network).
All you have to do to understand this could be a tough year for our public-safety community is listen to weather forecasts and read experts’ predictions of the number of wildfires, tornadoes, and hurricanes we can expect. Then add in the continued drought conditions on the West Coast and the overabundance of rain in portions of the Midwest and East Coast. If the pundits and forecasters are correct, this will be a particularly grueling year for all public-safety professionals. Now more than ever, FirstNet will play a significant role in supporting public-safety during these tough times.
FirstNet (Built with AT&T) has a number of deployables including Cells On Wheels (COWs), Cells On Light Trucks (COLTs), aerial systems, and more. These assets are available to any FirstNet member-agency when and where they are needed to provide additional capacity, additional coverage, or to temporarily replace cell sites that may have been taken out of service due to damage to the cell tower itself or issues with connectivity. I suspect this year will be very busy with deployment of these FirstNet assets. When I discussed deployables last year, I compared folks at FirstNet (Built with AT&T) moving assets all over the United States much like one would move chessmen on a chessboard (a huge chessboard).
National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1802-2021 Standard
First, I want to thank Bob Athanas, Chair of the NFPA committee that has worked tirelessly for more than seven years to develop specifications for the NFPA 1802 Standard on Two-Way, Portable RF Voice Communications Devices for Use by Emergency Services Personnel in the Hazard Zone.
Bob explained that the need for this standard became evident after two San Francisco firefighters died in the October 2011 fire they were battling. While a number of factors that contributed to these fatalities were identified during the subsequent investigation, the condition that prompted the NFPA to develop new standards was that the Remote Speaker/Microphone (RSM) cords on the two portables worn by the firefighters had melted in the heat, resulting in an open-mic situation that obstructed normal communications.
As a result of the findings in in its report, the San Francisco Fire Department (SFFD) requested that the International Association of Firefighters (IAFF) solicit the National Fire Protection Association for a portable radio standard. Studies by the National Institute of Technology (NIST), the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and several other organizations agreed on the need for a standard, and the job fell to the National Fire Protection Association. In September 2012, the NFPA assigned development of the standard to the Electronic Safety Equipment (ELS) committee, which set up the sub-committee that has worked many years to develop the standard.
As chairman of the committee with many years of experience at the New York City Fire Department (FDNY), Bob understood that the committee would require the experience of fire personnel, radio industry experts, and equipment vendors. He also determined that, ideally, committee members should be engineers; not marketing or other representatives from the vendor community. For example, an engineer from The FirstNet Authority’s technology group in Boulder, Colorado became a member of this committee with next-generation communication devices in mind.
In 2013 at its first meeting, committee members established guidelines for what was needed and how to structure the committee’s work. It was determined that focus should be on the device itself and would include the speaker/microphone rather than on operating systems for portable radios. As they worked toward the standard, the radio and speaker/mic were treated as one complete unit. Typically, each radio vendor included a proprietary plug for accessories such as speaker/mics and other add-ons on the side of the radio. Since convincing all the vendors to standardize on a universal side connector would be difficult, the committee developed an in-line connector that can be placed between vendors’ proprietary portable connections and the speaker/mic. Including this 10-pin connector in the standard enables fire departments to change the types of devices plugged into the radio. This means they will be able to use different types of speakers, microphones, and third-party devices that, hopefully, meet the requirements established by the NFPA.
The addition of this 10-pin connector was a point of contention for many of the vendors. However, they eventually agreed that this type of connector could be beneficial to all. While the committee determined the 10-pin connector might be the best solution, it also acknowledged that this connector could be a point of failure. Thus, the standard requires the radio itself to emit an audible and visual “FAILED ACCESSORY” alert in the event of a speaker/mic failure.
Now that NFPA operating environment parameters and minimum requirements for the design, performance, testing and certification of portable radio/speaker/microphone combinations have been established in the NFPA 1802 standard, vendors that want to build portable radios based on the specifications will be invited to send information and sample products to the independent third-party certification organization and testing lab. All NFPA-compliant devices will then be announced at one time to provide equal footing for all.
When asked if this will become a worldwide standard, the response was that previous NFPA standards have been adopted worldwide because they solved problems experienced by fire services around the world. The same level of acceptance is anticipated for this portable radio standard based on recent reports that first responders in the UK will remain on the TETRA LMR radio system for the next five years, and a variety of flavors of LMR communications are used in fire services worldwide.
As the committee worked to complete the portable radio standard, more firefighters died while battling fires in major metropolitan areas. Once again, while not the root cause of the deaths, failure of the portable radio or speaker/mic cable was certainly a contributing factor and this reinforced the need for this standard. It is anticipated that a number of vendors will provide equipment for testing and NFPA certification to use in the harsh environments that firefighters and others face.
In closing, Bob said firefighters today view their land mobile radios as life safety devices. As such, they are expected to work whenever and wherever needed. The NFPA 1802 standard does not delve into specifics of the spectrum or technology used in the radio nor does it take coverage issues inside buildings or other structures into account. It is assumed that the radio will have both the on-network and off-network (simplex or talk-around) capabilities needed by the various fire agencies and they will function in a near-failsafe manner.
The NFPA and the ELS committee are important to the fire community. They are an example of the kind of coordination needed to ensure all first responders have what they need, when they need it, and where they need it. Reaching a consensus about what firefighters need in the way of equipment and what the vendor community says it can provide at a reasonable price took a long time. In the end when devices meet NFPA certification, they should go a long way provide fire and other personnel working in harsh environments with radios they can trust with their lives.
L3Harris Extreme™ 400P
Anyone who questions whether land mobile radio vendors can build devices that meet NFPA standards need look no further than the new offering from L3Harris. While testing of radios designed to meet NFPA specifications has not yet begun, I believe this radio and its speaker/mic will probably be certified.
Detailed information about the XL Extreme 400P portable is available on the L3Harris website and some of its attributes include the following:
- Withstands extreme conditions for temperature, ruggedness, and water immersion
- Includes an all-new speaker/microphone that is designed to meet extreme operating conditions
- Designed to meet new industry standards for emergency responders working in extreme conditions
In addition to LMR public-safety spectrum, the XL Extreme 400P is capable of providing broadband services on multiple, different broadband networks including FirstNet, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and Global Positioning Services (GPS).
At this point, L3Harris appears to be the only vendor to unveil a hardened portable and speaker/mic designed to meet the NFPA standard. With the introduction of the XL Extreme 400P, the XL line of LMR multiband- and broadband-capable devices extends from a single LMR band with FirstNet (broadband), Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS to multiband LMR and broadband-capable portables along with the XL-200M with LMR including low-band, VHF, UHF, T-Band, 900-MHz, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and GPS capabilities. L3Harris has certainly taken the lead when it comes to LMR/broadband-capable devices.
By the time the NFPA 1802 testing and certification organization calls for product submissions, three or more member vendors are expected to submit products. It is also encouraging that L3Harris has announced a ruggedized product this soon after development of the standard.
Public Safety Communications Research (PSCR)
PSCR played an important role for the public-safety community from the inception of the FirstNet organization. In the earliest days, PSCR spent a great deal of time and effort working with various LTE infrastructure vendors to determine how well they provided interoperability between the various components of an LTE network and how well they operated and provided service in a multivendor system.
PSCR was first to engage with the 3GPP standards body for LTE and, along with The FirstNet Authority, it is still involved with the 3GPP. This relationship has resulted in a number of revisions to the LTE standards over the years, most or all of which have been adopted by FirstNet on behalf of the public-safety community.
By the time you read this, the virtual PSCR yearly event will have taken place. According to current plans, I will take part in some of the sessions. In future Advocates, I will provide information about what PSCR has been up to last year along with its work on different aspects of technology to enhance public-safety capabilities and the companies that have funded this work.
I hope by next year PSCR will be able to return to in-person sessions. Sessions I previously attended were very well done and along with the many presentations and discussions, there were demonstrations from the PSCR and some of the companies that had been funded with grants to work on specific aspects of the technologies. I hope many of you listened in to what the PSCR had to say this week.
PSCR and The FirstNet Authority technology personnel in Boulder, Colorado, have contributed significantly to what is available today and what will become available tomorrow to improve the public-safety community’s ability to provide its services.
Safer Buildings Coalition (SBC) No Noise Task Force
The SBC No Noise Task Force will be examining the many issues surrounding in-building wireless communications. There are four committees made up of volunteers who are well aware of these issues. No one seems to know how many buildings across the United States have in-building wireless capabilities and whether they are delivered via a Bi-Directional Amplifier (BDA), a Distributed Antenna System (DAS), or some other form of in-building system.
Some systems include commercial cellular and land mobile radio for public safety, some provide only in-building cellular, and some include only public-safety systems. The goal of the No Noise Task Force is to identify issues with in-building communications systems that public safety may or may not be aware of but that sometimes interfere with existing wide-area systems or create other types of interference.
The ultimate goal is to submit recommendations that will hopefully become nationwide standards rather than state-by-state or city-by-city standards. Several public-safety organizations including the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) and the International Order of Chiefs of Police (IACP) have already begun work in this area. Awareness of the need for in-building communications is at an all-time high and more and more companies are considering offering in-building communications systems.
However, we cannot continue with today’s piecemeal process for adding in-building communications. The No Noise Task Force hopes to identify many of these issues and perhaps agree to a set of possible solutions.
If you are interested in learning more about the activities of the No Noise Committee, please visit the saferbuildings.org website and click on No Noise. I became involved because conversations with many public-safety agencies often included issues surrounding in-building communications. Not long ago, I wrote a white paper about a different way to provide P25 trunked radio systems, and during a visit to the Dallas/Fort Worth airport where one such network had been implemented, I discovered two terminals with earlier bi-directional amplifiers that were now causing interference to the P25 wide-area system for the entire airport. The problems were eventually solved but the interference came as a surprise to those building out the airport-wide network.
This is only one example of issues I have come across over the last few years. If you are experiencing issues related to in-building communications systems or are concerned with how they are being deployed, maintained, or installed; and public safety changed radio spectrum, channels, the BDAs, or in-building devices no longer work, sign onto the SBC website and communicate with the No Noise Task Force or, if you prefer, you can send me a note and I will make sure it reaches the appropriate committee.
T-Mobile recently announced it was adding priority access to its existing pre-emption. This is probably misleading to public-safety personnel who are accustomed to full pre-emption and priority services on FirstNet (Built with AT&T). The T-Mobile announcement appears to pertain only to Wireless Priority Service (WPS), with which public-safety personnel can access the network for a voice call but no other network features or functions. While this is a good move by T-Mobile, the wording of its announcement is confusing.
As many of you may know, I am a member of the Radio Club of America, elevated to Fellow, and in 2010, the RCA honored me with the Sarnoff Citation award for my work with the public-safety community. I have served on the RCA board several times and I continue to support the organization. When I first joined, I met and came to know Fred Link and many other wireless pioneers. Over the years of attending RCA’s yearly banquet and technical session in late November, I have established relationships with many more people who have made significant contributions to wireless including land mobile radio, radio and TV broadcasting, and more. This year’s banquet will be held in Denver and the Radio Club is encouraging everyone to a bring in the next generation of Fred Links, Marty Coopers, Arlene Harris’, and Harlin McEwens to rub elbows and talk with the many notable members of the club. If you are interested in learning more about the Radio Club of America, please visit its website.
My comments above are indicative of my desire to make sure those considering entering the world of wireless in the next few years have an opportunity to work with a mentor or two. As many seasoned professionals are approaching retirement, we are losing the tremendous amount of valuable experience they have accumulated. This experience needs to be shared with those who will step in to continue advancing wireless technologies—not only by studying, but by hands-on experience, stories of successes and failures, and learning the hard way to turn disasters into victories.
Until next week…
Andrew M. Seybold
©2021, Andrew Seybold, Inc.