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Narrowband Migration

Lessons learned & best practices

 on JUNE 29, 2011
in RADIO FREQUENCYTECH

Photo Motorola Solutions

By Keri Losavio, with additional reporting by Teresa McCallion

If your radio system is subject to the FCC’s narrowbanding mandate and you haven’t yet started the process, it’s time.

“You can’t put your head in the sand on this one,” Tennessee Emergency Management Agency Radio System Analyst John Johnson told Public Safety Communications in April.[1]

So why have agencies postponed taking action on an FCC mandate that’s been on the table for more than 15 years?

For many agencies, the primary obstacle is money. Still others may not even realize the mandate applies to them. Example: An agency that operates an 800 MHz trunked radio system may not have considered the pagers and alerting systems they also use that operate in the affected bands. Others may have seen the long lead time and thought they had plenty of time to implement narrowbanding, simply postponing the inevitable. Others may need to coordinate more heavily with their neighbors who aren’t ready to act. Still others may not want to deal with the loss of coverage they anticipate.

Public safety agencies around the country are facing each of these obstacles, and some have found unique ways to overcome them.

Budget Issues
On the financial front, the FCC created the long lead time expressly to give agencies the time to replace their aging equipment in their natural equipment and budget life cycles. Unfortunately, the economic situation in the country took a severe and unexpected downturn, forcing many agencies to find creative ways to extend their systems’ lives rather than replace them.

“For some states, it’s a multi-million dollar dilemma,” said Mark Grubb, division director for the state of Delaware Division of Communications. “It can be a very significant financial problem for some systems.”[1]

According to Johnson, TEMA opted to take the opportunity to switch from analog to digital, adopting P25 technology. “Look at it as a chance to upgrade operability and implement interoperability,” he said. TEMA was able to offset a majority of the cost by using money from homeland security grants.

To figure out how much narrowbanding will cost your agency you’ll need to determine what equipment you need to replace and what can be reprogrammed. Don’t forget to check your cache radios, transportable systems, radios installed in command post or communications vehicles, mutual aid gateways and radios you may have “loaned” to neighboring agencies for mutual aid purposes. (See “How to Conduct a Radio Inventory,” by Gary L. Oldham.) Modifying your operating license will also involve a cost, although several of the Public Safety Frequency Coordinators, including APCO AFC (www.apcointl.org/frequency), have set special rates to handle this for public safety organizations.

Charles Taylor, who retired from the Ventura County Communications Department with more than 30 years of experience in public safety land mobile radio, said, “Keep your budgetary decision-makers informed. Council and commission members don’t like surprises.”[2]

“There’s a lot of cool new equipment on the market,” Taylor continued, “but some of it may not mesh well with your existing system, so have your equipment list reviewed by a neutral third party. Your local APCO International chapter can be of assistance. You may want to replace base stations and voting receivers first; they’re the backbone of your system.”

Derrick Ruble, director of emergency communications and 9-1-1 in Tazewell County, Va., offers this advice: “Price is on everyone’s mind, but please do not think that price should be your No. 1 decision-maker.”[3]

Tips: If you haven’t done so already, request funding and/or apply for grants now. Narrowbanding costs are allowable under the Interoperable Emergency Communications Grant Program. And consider purchasing through your state contract system to avoid supply problems. (For more information on available grants and loans, read “‘Unfunded Mandate’” by Charles Taylor and Keri Losavio.)

Planning & Logistics
Carl Guse, frequency specialist for the Wisconsin State Patrol Bureau of Communications and APCO Local Frequency Advisor for Wisconsin, said funding wasn’t a major issue for his agency because most of its equipment is relatively new and could be narrowbanded. He cited the logistics required to make the switch with minimum downtime as his agency’s major obstacle to overcome.[1]

The plan is to transition by area, starting at the north end of the state and working southward. Fortunately, he has the support to execute the plan. “People who need to get this done understand and are on board,” said Guse.

Tip: Logistics is a huge challenge, especially on statewide mutual aid channels. Careful planning is required to ensure all equipment makes the move within the same time frame to avoid potential mismatches between wideband and narrowband. Johnson suggested working with a radio service vendor and testing, testing, testing. “Until you get out there, you really don’t know what will happen,” Johnson said.

Ruble is coordinating the simultaneous narrow­banding transition of more than 31 different agencies in and around Tazewell. “We sat down and planned [narrowbanding] from day one. We have a committee with representatives from every organization branch and county department, budgets, emergency services, every jurisdiction. Everyone’s been involved and aware since day one,” he said.[3]

“We got an $872,000 Public Safety Interoperable Communications (PSIC) grant for Virginia operability/interoperability,” Ruble continued. “We used the PSIC grant money to move onto one frequency band (VHF), replace all our outdated equipment, and go to a single brand, single source for all 31 agencies. Plus, it’s digital ready and P25 upgradeable! We went with a system that had come up on the state contract. Now we can program in house, everyone is on the same platform, and we can all maintain our own systems and frequency ranges. We’re hoping at the end of this year we’ll have 90 to 95% equipment installed, and just a little more time for the repeater equipment.”

Fire Marshal Jim Odom, Versailles (Ky.) Fire Rescue Department, said, “Completing the paperwork was the most difficult part.”

Odom followed the instructions on the FCC’s website to change his department’s license himself. “You don’t have to go through a Coordinator if you’ve already got your frequency assigned,” he said, “but doing it without a Coordinator is going to be hard for someone who hasn’t done it before and is unfamiliar with the process.”

Interoperability
Interoperability with neighbors and within multi-jurisdictional or multi-agency communications structures is another critical challenge agencies need to overcome. Don’t forget to work with neighbors in- and outside the public safety arena. If your agency narrowbands, but nearby agencies don’t, communications can be compromised. Coordination is necessary to make the change without affecting critical radio traffic.

Many agencies have programmed neigh­boring jurisdictions’ frequencies in their radios for mutual aid purposes. Other government and business entities, from the city water department to farmers and schools, may also operate in the affected bandwidth. They also need to comply.

“Sometimes, we become so narrow[ly] focused we forget that other local, state and federal agencies will be impacted,” Johnson said. “We must work together.”

Tip: Johnson recommends adding the national VHF and UHF interoperability frequencies, using the APCO International standard for common frequencies, channel names and continuous tone-coded squelch system.

Working with neighbors often means working across state lines. “We are working very well with neighboring states,” said Wyoming Department of Transportation (WDOT) Telecommunications System Supervisor Larry Sheridan. To improve mutual aid coverage, WDOT built an omnidirectional coverage site on its Colorado state line and offered to allow its neighbor to place equipment on the site.[1]

The state of Wyoming opted to install a statewide digital trunk system and started implementing a public safety and mobile communications plan statewide in 2004. Subscriber equipment was also replaced at that time, with the entire project slated for completion in 2012. As a result, WDOT is well-placed for the narrowbanding transition. “We’re nicely ahead of the curve,” Sheridan said.

Currently, WDOT is working with local agencies to schedule narrowbanding on the separate statewide analog mutual aid repeater system. Wyoming agencies can use the state’s trunking system with no subscription cost.

According to Johnson, TEMA searched the FCC database and found a number of licenses for government agencies using spectrum outside the public safety band that would be affected. Many local school systems, utilities, universities, hospitals and volunteer fire and rescue organizations use the Business/Industrial spectrum, not just public safety frequencies.

Tip: TEMA recommends that agencies contact associations and the local chamber of commerce to help educate both public safety agencies and the business community.

Susan Adams, the deputy county administrator for Charlotte County, Va., advises that agencies work together. “We formed a regional group of five surrounding counties and called ourselves RIST—the Regional Interoperability Solutions Team,” she said. “We met monthly leading up to our transition. RIST functions just like a round table for representatives from every county to talk about where we are with interoperability, what we want to do next, etc.”[3]

Working with your neighbors is the only way to avoid interference issues. The Missouri Department of Transportation (MoDOT) switched to narrowband in 2003. “We have an analog high band VHF system with about 5,000 mobile radios, 60 repeaters, 10 dispatch base/control stations, a small number of portables and fixed base mobiles,” said Rick Bennett, emergency management coordinator for MoDOT. He said MoDOT has “reduced interference by going narrower, since the FCC hasn’t refarmed those extra narrowband channels yet.”[3]

Reduced Coverage
“There is the potential that if you have a marginal system to start with you could end up with less coverage at a public safety grade,” said Gary David Gray, part-time consultant and APCO International local frequency coordination advisor. Some organizations may need to redesign or adjust the alignment of base stations. To ensure a strong voice signal, you may need additional sites and more receivers in the field.[1]

Tip: Taylor recommends that agencies inspect all their base stations, repeaters, voting receivers, antennas, feed lines, lightning arrestors and connectors. “Look for anything that might allow unwanted signals or noise to enter your system,” he said. “Replace parts as needed.”

Alfred T. Yerger II, an RF engineering specialist for Bird Technologies Group, said to “expect a 5 to 6 dB reduction in system coverage performance after converting analog FM systems to narrowband digital technologies.”4 However, he said, “It’s likely that a number of dBs of potential improvement are hiding in your existing system. All we need to do is find them and put them back to work.” (For tips on identifying areas where improvements can be made to recover losses and result in equal or better performance, read “Narrowbanding: The Tech Side” byAlfred T. Yerger II.)

Some areas, such as St. Johns County, Fla., are going digital to eliminate low-signal issues or reduction in coverage that can occur with narrowbanding. To meet the narrowband mandate, St. Johns County plans to spend $27 million to upgrade its radio system to an 800 MHz digital system. “This is a process that we’ve been wrestling with for years, ever since I’ve been in administration,” Assistant County Administrator Jerry Cameron told The St. Augustine Record. “There just aren’t any easy answers.” Cameron said that every engineer he’s consulted “about taking current equipment to narrowband has said that the signal gets weaker.”[5]

Tip: There’s really only one solution: Test, test and test your radios to verify performance.

Pagers
Few pagers are narrowband capable. In February, Public Safety Communications addressed this issue inan article by Terry Whitham, E9-1-1 administrator for the Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security.[6] Whitham has been an active volunteer firefighter for 39 years with a large fire department. Delaware maintains an 800 MHz digital trunked radio system for emergency responders, but his department maintains a VHF system for alerting.

Every active member is assigned a Motorola Minitor pager. The main transmitter is housed at headquarters, and this is the department’s primary alerting source.

“When the FCC announced the new narrow­band requirements, our department—like many around us—figured this was not going to directly affect us. Our frequency is used only for alerting—no big deal. We have since contacted our radio vendor to ask what has to be done and the scope of the work necessary to bring us into compliance. Talk about an eye-opening experience.”

Step 1 is to reduce the department’s primary and backup transmitters from 25 to 12.5 kHz output emission. There’s a level of uncertainty about the effect on performance in the coverage area. “We have to ensure that our members will receive the alerts anywhere in our response and outlying areas, which is going to require the services of a good RF engineer to guide us through testing,” he said.

“We currently have more than 100 pagers assigned to members,” Whitham said. “Each device has to be reprogrammed to meet the new narrowbanding requirements.” However, Minitor models 1–4 cannot be upgraded, and almost 50% of their pagers are in that range.

The end result: A capital project budget line item to the tune of $20,000–25,000.

Lessons Learned
Get all the facts, and know the direct impact narrowbanding will have on your organization. Inventory your system. Prepare a plan and a budget. Identify funding sources. Test to ensure the best possible system performance. Work with your neighbors—not just other public safety agencies, but also those in the affected Business/Industrial bands.

Finally, consult an expert. You don’t have all the answers, so find someone who does.

About the Authors
Keri Losavio is the editor of APCO’s Public Safety Communications. Contact her atlosaviok@apcointl.org.

Teresa McCallion, EMT-B, is a public safety writer in Bonney Lake, Wash.

References

1. McCallion T. “It’s time: Complying with narrowbanding requirements.” Public Safety Communications. April 2011; 77(4):38–41.
2. Taylor C. “Narrowbanding: The ba­sics.” Public Safety Communications. January 2010; 76(1):26–28.
3. U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Office of Emergency Communications. A Practical Guide to Narrowbanding. March 2011.www.safecomprogram.gov/SAFECOM/library/currentprojects/1662_apractical.htm.
4. Yerger AT, II. “Narrowbanding—The tech side.” Public Safety Communications. January 2010; 76(1):29–32.
5. Edwards J. “Is $27M for Radios Necessary?” The St. Augustine Record. April 24, 2011.
6. Whitham TM. “Narrowbanding & You: Yes, you do need to know this,” Public Safety Communications. February 2011; 77(2):16.

Originally published July 2011 in Narrowband Now: Strategies for Meeting the Jan. 1, 2013, Deadline, a supplement to APCO International’s Public Safety Communications sponsored by Aeroflex Inc., Kenwood USA Corp., Motorola and Simulcast Solutions LLC.

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