Emergency crews moving to narrowband

M ost local fire departments and emergency responders expect to adhere with a federal mandate that requires all mobile radios switch to narrowband frequencies by the time the county makes the transition later this month.

The Washington County Department of Public Safety, which oversees the county’s 911 system and dispatches information to 27 fire departments, including nine in Vermont, nine EMS agencies and eight law enforcement agencies, is making the transition to narrowband on Oct. 15.

“Everybody should be switched over by that time,” said Bill Cook, director of the county’s public safety department.

The Federal Communications Commission has mandated that all public safety and business radio users who currently use wide band technology (25 kHz) convert to narrowband technology (12.5 kHz or less) by Jan. 1 or face fines of up to $112,500.

The objective of the mandate is to increase capacity and efficiency by freeing up space on existing radio spectrum. That in turn should allow for the creation of additional channels and support more users.

Cook described it as turning a two-lane highway into a four-lane highway. “It’s essentially doubling the bandwidth,” he said.

Proponents say narrowbanding technology offers improvements in capacity, security, audio quality and coverage.

But for some volunteer organizations, the mandate has meant they have had to dip into their revenue streams or apply for grants to replace outdated equipment.

“One of the problems we’ve had is our older paging equipment doesn’t work at a narrower bandwidth,” said Brian Brooks, president of the Whitehall Volunteer Fire Company. “It’s functioning radio equipment but it isn’t compliant. It’s another expense.”

Don Brown, chief of the Hubbardton, Vt. volunteer fire department, reported a similar experience.

“We had older equipment that couldn’t be switched over so we can’t use it anymore,” he said. “It’s a big expense for some departments.”

Brooks said most equipment purchased more than 10 years ago is outdated.

In both instances, the departments had the good fortune to be recipients of grants they used to replace some of their outdated equipment, but the transition has been a burden for some volunteer organizations.

Eric Mead, president of the Hampton Fire Department, estimated earlier this year that it was going to cost the department $2,800—a considerable expense when you consider the department receives only $25,000 a year from the town—to make its pagers and personal and truck radios comply with the new regulations.

“There is some cost,” said Cook. “But that is why we were given a few years. The idea was to recognize the need and put in place a plan to replace the radios.”

Cook said the county made the transition to narrowband-capable equipment after it built a new radio and communication system several years ago and many local law enforcement agencies, including the Washington County Sheriff’s Department and the Whitehall and Granville Police Departments already use narrowband capable equipment and have programmed it to work on the narrower frequencies

WVFC has been slowly making the transition to newer, narrowband-compliant radio equipment for the last two years.

Brooks said the company received a $21,000 communications grant in 2010 that was used to install a new repeater system. They’ve also bought two high-band radios, replaced 17 pagers and plan to replace another 14.

“This is something we’ve been gearing up for over the last year. We’ve been doing it slowly through attrition,” Brook said.

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