Wildland Fire Communication Systems

Our recommendations for Strike Team Communication Systems are generally relevant to wildland fire deployments, with two significant exceptions.

Tactical Bridges / Tactical Repeaters

The first difference between our usual advice for Strike Team Communications and Wildland Fire Communications is: be very conservative with the deployment of Tactical Bridges aka Tactical Repeaters aka Interoperability Switches.

At a Type 1 or Type 2 (large) incident, the communications personnel at the incidents will flat out reject the independent deployment or use of bridges/switches by strike teams. We agree with that prohibition.

As you may recall, we strongly urge strike teams (of any type) to be fully self-sufficient upon deploying, and to bring and use Tactical Bridges to provide operability between their members over their area of operation, and also to provide interoperability with other agencies nearby. And if possible to use IP Radio to provide communications to and from the area of operation with their home agency (where dispatchers are warm, dry, and well-rested). See here for more information.

The reason for the prohibition is because of the unintended conflict and interference created by Tactical Bridges. Worse, the interference may not be evident to the strike team when they deploy and use their own repeater/bridge/switch.

Large wildland fire incidents almost always have on-scene communications teams, and they will often utilize a network of linked tactical repeaters to provide coverage to all personnel, including the Strike Team.

The communications provided on a large wildland fire is a rare (and much appreciated) level of support , but ironically the use of Tactical Bridges and other communications equipment without coordination with the on-scene communications leader is potentially disruptive rather than helpful. That coordination will usually be simple: please don't use it.

However, a rural or smaller jurisdiction that will rarely see an incident management team arrive to help with its communication team... will want to consider acquiring their own Tactical Bridges in order to effect the same type of efficiency the Type 1 or 2 Team can provide on the big fires. Contact us for more information about how this would work.

Standardized Radio Models

The second exception to our standard recommendations for strike teams relates to the radios used at an incident. Unlike all other public safety incidents (so far anyway), there is a defined specification for the exact manufacturer and model of radio to be used on federal wildland fire incidents.

The specified models of radios are expensive -- nearly the most expensive portable VHF radios offered on the worldwide market (other than military VHF radios). So we are frequently asked by our customers whether they really need to purchase these radios. Good question...

Choosing A Wildland Fire Radio

Even with a federally defined list of acceptable manufacturers/models, this isn't an easily answered question. There are three dimensions to the answer:

1. Federal Requirements. Although it is implied, it is not yet a legal requirement that all personnel on a federal incident use a radio from The List (more on The List in a moment). However, your contract may stipulate this. We have often seen the requirement to use only radios from The List in pre-season agreements and other contracts with private companies, and sometimes in mutual aid agreements with government agencies (e.g. rural and urban fire departments). You will want to check this detail in your contract(s) each season, as the language has evolved in recent years to be more specific.

2. State Requirements. Some medium-sized incidents are not federal incidents per se, and are managed at the state level (depending upon the state, and the incident of course). Your state may require a specific model of radio, or a specific set of required capabilities that effectively stipulates a specific model of radio, for use at a wildland fire incident. We are aware of state contracts that specify a radio (sometimes customized with specific features and programming, such as the radio models specified by CDF (California Division of Forestry) in California), but we have not seen a legal requirement that firefighters use a specified radio model in any state. But you will want to check with the fire marshal's office in your state.

3. Mode of Operation. The modes of operation (wideband, narrowband, P25 Digital) actually used at the large incidents are evolving over time, so the operating mode of fire radios is a moving target.

It is very clear that radios must have narrowband analog capability because this is already in use for mutual aid channels (see here for more discussion on this) in many states (e.g. Oregon, Washington, California, et al.) and on all federal incidents (all federal agencies converted to narrowband analog prior to this fire season).

The big question is P25 Digital, which was not in wide use in the 2006 fire season for a variety of reasons, but a number of states including California have upgraded their radio caches with P25 radios, and all NIFC radios are P25. Eventually the digital mode will be used, so to be interoperable you will want P25 Digital capability... eventually.

Our basic advice is to procure one of the radio models on The List for every firefighter unless budget prohibits the expense. This provides interoperability, and reduces the risk of creating problems at the incident.

If budget is an constraining issue, then our "Plan B" recommendation is to procure one of the radios on The List for each strike team leader and task force leader, while providing narrow-band analog radios for the individual firefighters (we can provide specific recommendations for such radios). The difference in cost is about 3:1.

There are two reasons for acquiring the more expensive radios on The List:

A) Don't rock the boat. If your radio causes interference or otherwise malfunctions, the incident management team will not be sympathetic if you are using a radio not on The List. There have been consistent problems with contractors and fire departments providing crews on mutual aid using older radios at incidents, and causing inadvertent interference (usually wideband analog transmissions on narrowband analog channels).

B) Easy Cloning. Almost every incident uses a different channel plan, and even if you already have the frequencies programmed into your radio, you may want to use the channel plan specific to that fire (e.g. command is on channel 7, tac2 is on channel 6, etc.). To do this quickly and efficiently at the incident calls for the ability to clone a channel bank from a known-good programmed radio into your radio. To do that, you need a compatible radio. Although there are no guarantees, you have a better chance of being able to clone your radio at the scene if you have a radio from The List.

Contact us directly for help on this thorny issue.

The List

Okay, so which specific radio models are on The List for federal incidents? This can be a tad confusing since there are two lists of "standard" radios defined by the federal government.

Only one of these lists matters: the list of "Fire Approved Radios" which you can find here.

There is a larger list of radios (including mobiles, base stations, and repeaters) that is the result of the Department of the Interior's efforts to establish a relatively large number of non-exclusive contracts with narrowband, P25 Digital capable radio manufacturers. While this has created a defacto standard for federal public safety agencies (e.g. USFS, BLM, FBI, ATF, etc.), not all of the radios on this list are not necessarily appropriate for wildland fire use.

A second, smaller list of "Fire Approved Radios" was created when the wildland fire service (represented by the US Forest Service's National Interagency Incident Communications Division (NIICD)) conducted another layer of evaluation and testing on the larger DOI list, and selected a subset of the radios that survived the process.

These "Fire Approved Radios" can be seen on the list maintained on the NIFC (National Interagency Fire Center) website.

The radios are expensive in part because the Fire Approved Radios inherited the DOI's requirement that the radios offer P25 Digital mode, even though we have previously noted that P25 isn't in use at fires (yet). This is a good thing for future interoperability, but obviously increases the cost of the radios.

The Fire Approved Radios list is constantly evolving, as are opinions in the wildland fire community about the particular models on the approved list. For instance the Thales was upgraded to use a wide-band Motorola antenna, but that in turn consumed more power (digital radios consume more power than analog) which has led to issues of adequate battery power.

(Only portables and aviation radios are currently evaluated for inclusion in the list; there is not a "Fire Approved" list for mobile or base station radios at this time. The NIICD has tested mobiles and bases, and the results are available here (although dated, many of the issues discussed in the document have been addressed). Note that the Daniels radios that National Interop generally recommends for base stations and repeaters were one of the few radio manufacturers to be reviewed without a single issue.

Can National Interop Help?

If you are a contractor, or a local/regional government agency, we can help you purchase either directly from the manufacturer (if you qualify to purchase under an existing contract or GSA schedule) or you can buy from us (at similar pricing to GSA).

We offer the Guardian Datron VHF portables and mobiles; the VHF portable is on the Fire Approved Radio list (there is not a Fire Approved Radio list for mobiles, but the NIICD has evaluated the datron mobile and found it acceptable).

We offer the Daniels fixed and portable repeaters and remote base stations (the same equipment that is used in the NIFC cache), all of which have been positively evaluated by the NIICD (there is not a Fire Approved Radio list for mobiles or base stations).

We offer the Icom VHF F70 series submerssible portable radios, and a variety of mobiles for the a cost-effective alternative, which are not on the Fire Approved List, but are narrowband analog capable (and optionally P25 Digital capable).

Contact us directly for information about these alternatives, and we'll help you through the process of determining what your company or department needs.


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