Firefighting agencies buy common radios

National Interagency Fire Center

With a wildfire season on the horizon that officials fear could be severe, several federal agencies are being equipped with rugged, interoperable radios.

Because multiple agencies such as the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management respond to massive forest fires, first responders from each agency need to communicate effectively. As a result, EFJohnson Inc. will provide the agencies with portable, fire- resistant radios this summer. The Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are among several federal and local agencies represented in the National Interagency Fire Center, a Boise, Idaho-based hub of firefighting resources.

The radios can switch seamlessly between digital and analog, a feature that allows older, local systems to talk to newer systems used by the FBI or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example. Under two orders in an Interior Department contract, EFJohnson will provide 500 radios, valued at almost $1.2 million.

"It was an awakening on Sept. 11," 2001, said Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the fire center, referring to the difficulty federal, state and local agencies had communicating during the terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. "So having these radios is really an asset as we all work together."

The radios will be positioned nationwide, bringing the total to about 8,000 radios that are ready for an emergency, such as a fire, hurricane or terrorist attack. The radios are part of Project 25, a communications standard that certifies technologies that allow for interoperability. The radios are "backward compatible," so they will talk to analog systems, which remain the norm for many agencies.

Stephen Jenkins, chief of the National Interagency Incident Communications Division within the fire center, said the agencies are investing for the future. He expects that all agencies will use digital communications in the next five to seven years. "It's kind of like we're buying Corvettes, but we can only drive them at 50 miles per hour," he said.

The radios allow for secure communications with encryption capabilities, said Jim Ridgell, vice president of federal business development for EFJohnson.

Building a stockpile of compatible radios to use during incidents might not be the best approach for interoperability, said John Cohen, president of PSComm LLC. Responders run the risk of forgetting to bring the radios to the scene, not charging the batteries or not knowing how to use them when they get to the scene.

"Simply keeping a bunch of radios in a warehouse is going to be problematic," he said. "I'm not sure that's what I'd advise them to do."

Instead, Cohen said many local and state agencies are investing in interconnector technology to patch systems together.

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Wildfires

Last year's wildfire season was a busy one, according to the National Interagency Fire Center:

* There were 88,458 fires.

* Almost 7 million acres were burned.

* 815 structures were destroyed.

* Agencies spent an estimated $1.6 billion suppressing the flames.

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