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How to plan for your equipment replacement

Your radio and comms investments need to last – what’s the best way to futureproof them?

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With items as vital as radios, you should know what you have, its age and state of wear, and how it functions across your jurisdiction and with your neighbors.

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Sponsored by EF Johnson Technologies

By John Erich, Police1 BrandFocus Staff

To keep your police or fire department’s communications functioning optimally, it helps to be a bit of a soothsayer. You have to see a certain distance into the future and have a general idea about what’s around the next bend.

Sometimes that’s easy. When a major change like Project 25 comes to emergency communications – that’s the current suite of standards for the interoperable digital two-way radios used by first responders – preparation can be relatively straightforward. Deadlines, if any, will be announced far in advance. Vendors will offer new products and supporting education about their functions and the requirements they meet. Departments can be ready when the time comes.

That was the case at the Tennessee fire department where Adam Hursh works. It’s currently on an analog radio system, but everything is digital-capable – the radios, the repeaters, the works. Its firefighters have consequently been thoroughly prepared for years for a transition to digital comms that’s finally happening in 2024.

Leaders designed things that way when they put their current system in place years ago. “Digital’s the big thing these days, but it wasn’t so big 20 years ago,” noted Hursh, a lieutenant with that suburban department, volunteer with another and grant expert with Lexipol. But P25 and digital transitions were beginning with some early adopters, and the overall direction of the industry was clear. By answering both their need at the time and their needs for the future, leadership effectively “futureproofed” their department’s essential connections.

That’s not always so simple, of course. Most of the time, police and fire chiefs and those who manage their comms can’t be as clear on what tomorrow will bring. But they sure will be blamed if their departments aren’t ready for it.

Turn to the experts

So how do you know? How can you tell what to buy, what capabilities to prioritize and when you’ll need it all street-ready?

The biggest experts on these issues in most police and fire universes are the people who make and sell that equipment. They have the best idea what the future will bring because they’re building for it, and their success depends on getting it right. Whether your needs are broad and industry-wide or narrow and specific to you, they are the best place to turn for counsel.

“We’re set up to act almost like a consultant,” said Joshua Billis, vice president of system sales for EF Johnson Technologies, a subsidiary of JVCKENWOOD and top provider of radios and critical communications systems for emergency providers and others. “We’ll listen to the customer’s challenges, learn about what equipment they have and then provide education on which solutions will work best for them.”

Vendors of course want to sell product – but they also want to sell you the right product. Sticking you with the wrong solution that doesn’t work well for your personnel or citizens won’t engender repeat business and a good reputation in the close-knit responder community. So they are incentivized to give you advice that’s objectively good, not just self-serving.

They also typically staff up with industry veterans – former cops and firefighters with a firsthand understanding of users’ needs and challenges. Billis, for instance, spent 13 years as an officer and detective and another 10 overseeing county-level emergency communications in Arkansas.

So while you may not know precisely what tomorrow holds, the expertise of vendors’ personnel can help steer you toward better decisions.

“I don’t know what’s next – I mean, once you’re digital, what’s left?” said Hursh. “But I think that’s where you can talk to vendors and manufacturers and see what their expectations are for the next 10–15 years. If there’s something coming down the pipeline that maybe we don’t know about, or the FCC’s putting in more guidelines or something, the best way to futureproof is just to talk to vendors and see where they’re planning to go.”

Where do you want to be?

While such guidance can be helpful, especially when major change is coming, it doesn’t relieve departments of ultimate responsibility for their own communications. As a chief or comms director, it’s still on you to know some basics about your community and what your radio system needs to accomplish – both day to day and over the next decade – before you can obtain and deploy the tools to get there.

With items as vital as radios, you should know what you have, its age and state of wear, and how it functions across your jurisdiction and with your neighbors. If you can’t foresee tomorrow’s technological twists, at least you can know what you have in hand and whether it’s nearing the end of its road. You should also have ideas about jurisdictional growth and the populations you’re likely to be serving as time passes.

“It’s beneficial to know where you’re going to go with your system, so the first step is to plan where you want to be in the future,” said Billis. “Most agencies know their equipment’s broken or is reaching its end of life. The problem is a lot of times agencies can be reactive: Plug that hole and don’t worry about the next one until it occurs. But taking the time to determine where you’re headed could provide you a path to get there in pieces.”

A piecemeal approach might not be as simple and satisfying as a full-sweep replacement of everything at once, but for financial reasons, it’s how most departments operate: Replace a few radios this year, a few more next year and so on, until the old is cycled out.

“An agency in the analog world that wants to go P25 is a good example,” explained Billis. “There are paths out there that allow you to replace components with equipment that can move your agency’s communication into the future in a more cost-effective manner. That could be as simple as adding a repeater that can connect you to the P25 world from analog without overhauling the entire system. With that solution, you’re investing in the future while repairing your current problem.”

That may mean slight year-to-year differences in functions and capabilities, but unless you’re hopping among makers, those are generally fairly minor.

“If you stick with the same manufacturer, not much is going to change throughout the radio unless you really change systems,” said Hursh. “The biggest thing I’ve found is battery life – the older the batteries, the more likely the newer radios are gonna eat through them. But for the most part, unless you’re doing a whole lot of operation, most firefighters aren’t going to get into the intricate details of all the features within a radio.”

You can do such bite-size turnover successfully, but be aware you’ll have different versions of radios over time, and perhaps different training requirements. And if you’re looking at a total change of suppliers or radical difference in models, those can have greater ramifications.

“If you have disparate equipment, it can be harder to maintain,” said Billis. “You have different programming software, different use cases. Public safety trains for repetition, and your equipment needs to match the equipment the people next to you have, so if there’s an emergency and your equipment stops working, you can just pick up what your partner had and keep going.

“However, most of the time products can also be programmed to act like the other products, so that’s not always a huge issue. And if an agency does have to do it that way, we have paths for them to move forward and into newer equipment that’s used the same way.”

Grants can fund bigger change

Whether you’re replacing a few radios or your whole system, grants can help. As outlined in the first two parts of this series (here and here), first responders and public safety are resonant topics for most funders. EF Johnson has staff knowledgeable about grants and works with Lexipol to help clients apply.

Generally, asking small improves your chances of winning, while asking big, if successful, may help you fund systemic changes that are comprehensive, not incremental.

One final piece of advice: Don’t limit your thinking to just radios.

“One of the challenges in this space is that agencies don’t use grants for systems when they can,” said Billis. “The biggest chunk of a radio system could be the end-user equipment, such as radios, but it could also be the system itself. You see grants all over the place being used for radios, but you don’t see too many being used to supplement system architecture. Maybe that’s a challenge of timing, maybe it’s a challenge of writing grants that big, or it’s a fear of asking.

“For that amount of money, you need some sort of focus on the future. But if you’ve done all the planning and want to go big, then you should definitely go for it.”

“I’ve seen different grants fund the same things over multiple years, but as a department leader, I wouldn’t want to do that, because you’re kind of just Band-Aiding every year,” agreed Hursh. “If you’re replacing some radios or pieces of your system every year, maybe it’s just time to bite the bullet and replace them all.”

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