Fighting fires using radio communication

By Mike Smyth, specialist technical writer
Friday, 25 January, 2013

With the NSW bushfire emergency seemingly under control, the Rural Fire Service (RFS) will no doubt be using this breathing space to ensure all its radio equipment is still working at peak efficiency before the astronomical temperatures and high winds of recent weeks surely return.

The RFS is said to be the largest operator of radio communications infrastructure in NSW. It has an extensive investment in the 900 MHz band with both PMR and paging systems using this section of the spectrum to provide links between sites where other communication systems are not possible.

An upgrade program, authorised in 2010, will eventually replace the 131 two-frequency, low-capacity, fixed service channels used by the RFS’s current analog radio equipment.

Many of these channels will be replaced by 15 channels at 200 kHz channel spacing with either QPSK modulation providing a bandwidth of 336 Kbps or QAM modulation giving 1.168 Mbps at 128 QAM modulation in the same 900 MHz spectrum.

The service uses a series of relatively separate network/systems with some sharing and some duplicate infrastructure. Communications operate on three levels - strategic, tactical and task.

The strategic network (STRATNET) of 25 PMR sites, supported by GRN where available, delivers communications across NSW, point to point between regional offices, district fire control centres, satellite district fire offices and RFS headquarters.

At the tactical level, the RFS operates some 370 PMR sites as backbone infrastructure for a fire control centre to work with local brigades to respond to a fire, a group of fires or other emergencies within a district. Communications are typically between centres and fire appliances/tankers and aircraft.

The task level covers communications between brigade members operating within one local area, typically fire ground appliance/tanker to firefighter and firefighter to firefighter. In this case the distances are short enough that a radio repeater site is not required and communication is carried out handset to handset.

Brigade members are called to duty predominantly through a state-wide network of over 10,000 pagers, activated by a network of communications towers.

The towers form the backbone of the RFS communications system. Some towers are owned by the RFS, others are leased.

Meanwhile, the ‘other’ fire service has been on standby to augment the efforts of the RFS should fires approach the metropolitan areas.

Fire & Rescue (FRNSW) has a sophisticated telecommunications infrastructure to enable a rapid response to emergency incidents, coordinate command officers and specialist resources, provide communications for incident management and for relaying information within Fire & Rescue and externally to the public.

There are four communications centres - Sydney, Newcastle, Wollongong and Katoomba. These take all the emergency calls in NSW, including calls coming through the triple-zero service and calls from automatic fire alarms.

The centres handle about 260,000 emergency calls a year and receive between 10 and 12% of the total volume of triple-zero calls generated in NSW. The remainder is shared between the police and the ambulance service.

The centres also act as call centres for the RFS and, through a mutual aid agreement, take overflow calls to the SES.

At incidents, two-way radios keep the centres in touch with the firefighters while personnel communicate with each other using handheld two-way radios. Mobile telephones are also used along with satellite phones if radio communication is not possible.

Living in a country with such frequent and deadly disasters, communication is a vital part of fighting fire for both emergency service agencies.

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