So you want to start off with a portable radio cache?

By Capt. Eddie Reyes
Sponsored by Cisco Systems

Some public safety leaders believe that the easiest way to be prepared for the next major event in their municipality or region is to have a cache of public safety radios so that when the “cavalry” starts showing up, they’ll have plenty of radios to hand out. But if only the communications readiness issue were that easy.

In National Capital Region (NCR) where major events such as the attack on the Pentagon (emergencies) and Presidential Inaugurations (preplanned events) dictate the use of lots of communications assets, a large radio cache is a very import part of our communications arsenal. It’s very important because we had first responders from as far away as Texas, California and New York assist us with each event and a radio cache is priceless whenever that many personnel from outside of our area converge to assist.

I mention emergencies and preplanned events because depending on the type of event will determine the deployment, governance and protocol. According to the US Department of Homeland Security’s SAFECOM Program, having a cache of portable radios ready for your next event is the lowest level of interoperability readiness that a community can have.

The Interoperability Continuum was developed in accordance with SAFE COM’s locally driven philosophy and its practical experience in working with local governments across the nation. This tool was established to depict the core facets of interoperability according to the stated needs and challenges of the public safety community. There are several things you should know before embarking on this solution.

A radio cache for large public safety events should be considered a “tool” in the “tool box” of public safety communications officials. While it is at the lowest end of the readiness spectrum, it certainly has its place in large natural or man-made events. Lots of careful consideration, however, has to be given to many factors that will determine if the cache that is secured for your community will bring the maximum benefit during a large crisis.

In 2003 when the National Capital Region (NCR) received millions of Urban Area Security Initiative (UASI) funds, I was part of a collaborative effort in our region charged with the formal procurement process of a large cache of public safety portable radios. Strong communications governance that was already in place allowed us to carefully discuss this initiative at monthly meetings and receive input from municipalities who would benefit from the use this cache.

The first thing that we did was select a steering committee that would do all of the research and provide regular updates to the larger, general group in order to stay focused and ultimately complete the project in the strict timeframe. Keep in mind that those of who agreed to serve on the steering committee did so as part of an “ancillary duty”. In other words, we were all doing other full time duties with our respective agencies but because of our commitment to this very important effort, I believe we were able to achieve the best possible radio cache.

So if this is an option your municipality or region is considering, here are some key issues to consider: formal procurement process, programming the radios, governance and deployment, accessories and maintenance.

Formal Procurement Process

Once the cache steering committee is ready to embark on this solution, they can start with a Request for Information (RFI). This is nothing more than a formal announcement to public safety radio manufacturers of their desire to receive formal and technical information on portable radios. If you keep your RFI simple and ask for simple responses, this will allow your committee to quickly review the responses and prepare for a formal request for proposal (RFP).

The huge advantage of an RFI is that sometimes the vendors will send you ideas from their products you hadn’t thought about. This procurement process can also vary if the agency or region has previously applied for a grant in which they specifically listed the radios to be purchased.

Additionally, state and large municipalities have very attractive procurement contracts in place and you can take advantage of some of these if that agency is part of your committee. In this case, the RFI and RFP process can sometimes be bypassed, depending on legal requirements.

Like with any other industry, there is fierce competition for contracts that involve public safety radio sales and to avoid any unnecessary litigation, please consult your final procurement process with legal guidance. In most cases, a City or County attorney will quickly provide guidance on your process.

Important items to consider for an RFI / RFP are: a reasonable due date, limit the number of pages and ensure that a local single point of contact is included. If you don’t limit these items, you’ll be receiving product information long after your project is completed, you’ll get buried with publications that are too cumbersome for a committee to review quickly and you could end up dealing with someone from the headquarters office that has no vested interest once the deal is completed.

Dealing with a local representative will be extremely important later on when things don’t quite end up like you were led to believe during the procurement process. Make sure that the formal proposal process includes a live demonstration of the radios you are considering by the vendor, to include the temporary use of the radios (to include any accessories) on your radio system while you’re considering the purchase. Make sure the committee members exercise these loaners extensively on the different radio systems to find any quirks the radios may have. The best time to bring up any issues with a vendor and actually get resolution is before

you make the purchase.

Obtaining and Programming the Radios

Today’s public safety radios are so advanced that they are really mini-computers with an antenna capable of achieving many software options. Most radios are programmed by connecting them to a computer using a special cable and the operator literally gives it the operating parameters. Therefore, before you select a product, please make sure it represents the best interest of all the agencies and disciplines in your region. In other words, make sure it’s a cache that will be capable of being used on as many radio systems as possible.

During the RFP process above, the committee should have conducted a formal survey of all of the radio systems in the region to determine which radios will work on which systems.

Another popular idea with radio caches is that they never be deployed on any agency’s radio system and instead be used in line-of-sight mode or on portable repeaters (I will discuss this further under “accessories” below). I still believe our region made a significant error when we procured our cache (1,250 portables) all in the same frequency (800 MHz) without better consideration of other agencies and disciplines in our region that are not on this frequency, despite the fact that almost all of the local radio systems are 800 MHz.

The NCR has a large Federal first responder presence that operates primarily on VHF. The two significant drawbacks of purchasing a cache in one frequency range are:

    1) anytime an agency that is not preprogrammed in the cache needs it, you also have to provide an interconnect device, a gateway

    2) radio waves are a premium during a major event when these radios are deployed and the last thing any agency wants is the bulk of the radio cache operating on their radio system.

In our case, because the NCR has a good VHF presence and some UHF systems in our region, it would’ve made sense to break our order up. For example: 700 portables in 800 MHz; 150 in VHF and 150 in UHF.

Once the radios have been purchased, agree ahead of time where these radios will be shipped and make sure it’s an agency that is capable (personnel and space) of handling this task. It will be a large logistical event involving many boxes and the mere delivery can be taxing on a small agency.

Some other important features to consider are radio color, engraving and bar code dispensing system. Our committee chose canary yellow for our radios so that they could be easily identified from others and to prevent them from being “converted to agency use”. We also used a very effective and professional engraving machine to engrave owner information on the radios.

Finally, because we envisioned having to dispense these radios very quickly during an emergency, yet wanting to know exactly who had each one, we applied a bar code sticker on each radio. This cache is deployed with a bar code reader and computer software that allows the deployment team to quickly scan and enter basic information for first responders using the radios.

A positive feature of embarking on a radio cache solution is that it will require an agency or region to update their radio programming because each agency providing programming information will want to give the most current radio template to the radio programmers. If an agency is not controlling the cache, usually they will only provide a few basic channels because they fear that a cache user could compromise their radio systems.

The committee overseeing the programming process should agree on common and standard channel names before the programming actually begin because once the radios are programmed, it takes lots of time and effort to fix a single error because each radio will have to be reprogrammed.

Governance and Deployment

Although governance and deployment should’ve been thoroughly covered by now during the procurement phase, it is important that each agency participating in the radio cache solution feels they are a sincere part of this solution; otherwise they may not contribute radio programming information or may not ever use it.

These radio caches will always be deployed in one of two modes: emergencies and preplanned events. Obviously, preplanned events usually give you plenty of time to prepare for it and you can expect less chaos. Nevertheless, formal deployment procedures should be drawn up for each instance and made known to the agency or region.

    [Click here for a sample of formal governance and deployment procedures for a cache.]

Accessories and Maintenance

Some very important accessories that can easily be overlooked but are extremely important are: transport vehicles, to include trailers; hard weather-proof storage cases; portable repeaters; interconnect switches complete with a large assortment of cables for every model of portable radio in the region, bank chargers and three types of portable radio batteries:

    1) rechargeable (those you can charge for preplanned events),

    2) disposable (usually have a shelf life of ten years and can power a radio for up to eight hours once opened) and

    3) those that can be powered with alkaline batteries, such as AA.

This third type is very important because during an event like Hurricane Katrina where charging rechargeable batteries became impossible in some regions and the disposables became inoperable after eight hours, it’s easy to get AA batteries shipped in and the radios are back in service.

Finally, a radio cache requires constant maintenance and therefore should be maintained by an agency that has the personnel, space and dedication. An excellent example of the governance and collaboration in the NCR is the fact that our portable radio cache is maintained by three local Fire and Rescue Departments in the NCR: Washington, DC (250 portables), Maryland (500 portables) and Virginia (500 portables).

Because almost all of the local fire departments in the NCR are on 800 MHz radio systems, they hardly consider the use of this cache. It is often the law enforcement community that calls for these caches and the team which has volunteered to deploy these radios along with all the accessories listed, does so seamlessly thanks to the dedication they have given to the true spirit of cooperation, training and getting the job done.

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