Surf Life Saving Queensland's radio system

AA Radio Services Pty Ltd

By Jonathan Nally
Wednesday, 03 June, 2015



Surf Life Saving Queensland's radio system

Surf Life Saving Queensland now has a modern digital radio network and state-of-the-art communications centres in South-East Queensland.

In a journey that has taken almost five years to complete, Surf Life Saving Queensland (SLSQ) has gone from having an almost ad hoc conventional analog radio system to a modern digital network with a rationalised radio fleet supported by two state-of-the-art communications centres.

SLSQ has more than 30,000 volunteers in 58 clubs along the Queensland coast and also fulfils most of the lifeguard contracts for local councils. Lifeguards are paid positions, whilst lifesavers are volunteers. “In addition to our volunteer arm, SLSQ also operates a fully integrated lifeguard service across the state, providing services to local government, councils and land managers,” says SLSQ lifesaving operations support coordinator Jason Argent.

SLSQ’s four-and-a-half-year transition from the legacy analog system to a digital system was accomplished in stages. The timeline was essentially as follows: up until early 2012, the system was still analog and not yet narrowbanded; narrowbanding took place during 2012, in time for the 2012-13 summer surf season; and throughout 2013-14, the system was converted to digital in time for the start of the 2014-15 surf season.

Narrowbanding and the digital road

The ACMA’s narrowbanding mandate forced many organisations around the nation to make changes - some major, some minor - to their communications equipment and operations. For SLSQ, it was also an opportunity to take a good, long look at what its radio communications needs would be in five and 10 years’ time.

“The first step towards shifting to digital was the narrowband - down from 25 kHz to 12.5 kHz,” says Argent. “It was an extensive process which saw us call in every single radio from each surf lifesaving club across Queensland. Collectively there were more than 400 radios in use, so it was a fairly sizeable project and one which took more than two years to complete.”

“We focused on South East Queensland initially, which consisted of 37 surf lifesaving clubs in addition to various lifeguard and operations support services, and then in the second year we completed the rest of Queensland, from Hervey Bay up to Port Douglas.”

The process of narrowbanding meant ‘cleaning out’ the system’s odds and ends radios.

“We took that opportunity to do a full refresh,” says Argent. “We made the Icom IC-F60 radio standard across the network, or the preferred radio, although we could still use some version of Tait radios at that stage.

“We completed the narrowband, which involved changing all the frequencies around and cleaning up the band plan. Traditionally speaking, we’d always had a somewhat cluttered channel list, so we took the opportunity to clean that up at the same time. We stayed with analog at that stage, and we fixed up our repeater sites and made sure they were compliant with the narrowband.

“When we started the narrowband process we discussed what the needs were moving forward, and identified that it would be a digital radio network… because obviously everyone would have to move to a digital radio network of some type at some point in time.”

Beach scene with life savers and helicopter

Image courtesy Michael Zimmer (zayzayem)/Flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

AA Radio had worked with SLSQ for many years, well before the digital transition project was on the horizon. “AA Radio was maintaining SLSQ’s existing system and worked hand in hand with SLSQ throughout the planning and the implementation of the narrowband process,” says David Lenehan, the company’s marketing and business development manager. “And that was really the first critical point of the digital upgrade process itself, because it gave SLSQ the chance to ratify their fleet and remove any non-compliant radios from a narrowband point of view. It was the start of this digital upgrade project.

“So when the time came to start planning the upgrading of their system, we worked closely with them and the project evolved. We had a very intimate understanding of the infrastructure and operational requirements of SLSQ, so the transition from planning to implementation was smooth process.”

"At that stage, AA Radio engaged Icom to come and chat with us,” says Argent. “We listed out some requirements for any new radios. They’d have to be IP-67, have GPS tracking capability, short messaging, in the IDAS platform. And not overly heavy units - a lot of the digital radios were quite big at the time - not that it was going to be as small as the F60, but we wanted it to be somewhat comparable. So that’s probably why we stayed where we were for two years; to allow Icom to develop the product, the IC-4263, which is what we use.”

Planning the job

“We place great importance on the methodology we apply to all the work we do with our clients,” says Lenehan. “We work closely with all clients to understand both their business-critical and operational requirements. This is particularly important when working with an organisation such as SLSQ that deals with public safety.

“The process from the outset [for] this upgrade largely depended on our understanding of what was required, what the constraints were and what SLSQ’s future requirements would be. Once we mapped out the business-critical and operational requirements, we worked through the functionality, cost implications, ease of migration and scalability of all major technology platforms such as P25, TETRA and DMR. The end result of this process was the selection of ICOM IDAS.”

SLSQ gradually replaced its entire repeater network with IDAS-compliant repeaters, running them in conventional UHF mode but with the intention always to go digital once it had the budget to do so. It established a comms centre at Mooloolaba on the Sunshine Coast and started to buy handheld radios that were IDAS-capable, well before the digital network was put in.

“And then once they had the budget, we needed to assess their band plan,” says Mark Wyatt, AA Radio’s Queensland state manager. “Some of it had to change, as there were some legacy frequencies that were interfering with one another. This occurred during the off-season (when only full-time lifeguards use the system) so as to minimise impact to radio users.”

“Whatever phase we were at, SLSQ had to be operational at the start of every season,” says Lenehan. “It was a four-and-a-half-year project, and it was a very interesting process to select what we could do in terms of the budgeting and how that could be implemented and turned on at the start of each season, so that SLSQ’s communications were still fully functional regardless of if we were a quarter, a third or halfway through the entire upgrade. It was challenging.”

Development of the radio

In a way, it can be said that the SLSQ requirements drove the development of the Icom radio they ended up using, the IC-4263. Icom Japan was in the process of looking at what they were going to include in their next radio, and saw the potential in SLSQ’s mix of needs.

“We went to them with the specific requirements of SLSQ, being the FDMA IDAS platform, waterproof, high-level audio, GPS on board, all of which ended up being incorporated into the radios,” says Colin Bresnahan, Icom Australia’s sales manager.

“This was an extremely unusual case. There has never been a radio developed for any specific client outside of Icom Japan’s design department. In a global manufacturing process like that, they would normally start with VHF, they’d then produce the UHF low band, and at the end of the run we’d get our high-band UHF. This was the first time ever out of Icom Japan that the UHF high-band radio has come off the production line first. So it was pretty exciting for us.

“And it is a global radio now, and it covers all bands - VHF and UHF, low and high band. It’s our flagship radio for IDAS, and it would be our largest selling radio for the IDAS system, for sure.”

Icom IC-4263 transceiver

Surf Life Saving Queensland uses the Icom IC-4263 handheld transceiver.

Bresnahan says it was about six or seven months from the brief to the first product, “which was just phenomenal”.

“And since then, and probably based on the back of it, we now don’t have a radio coming out of the factory that’s not IP67 rated - all of our portable radios are now waterproof,” says Bresnahan.

Surfcoms

As far the comm centres, or Surfcoms, go, SLSQ had been using Omnitronics’ analog, line-based console solutions for many years. And then a few years ago they installed a PC-based console solution, the Omnitronics DX-64, into the Surfcom on the Sunshine Coast. A second communications centre is located on the Gold Coast.

In line with the plan to migrate to a digital radio system, SLSQ then upgraded the Sunshine Coast DX-64 to a DX-Altus, which is Omnitronics’ new-generation digital radio-capable dispatch console product.

“The main benefit [of the upgrade to Altus] is the ability to operate with a digital radio system,” says Bruce Forward, Omnitronics’ manager for Oceania and international sales. “Whereas the DX-64 had analog capabilities, such as selective calling and ANI, the DX-Altus gives them digital calling functionality. In other words, it can interface to the Icom IDAS digital radio system and provide the operators with functionality such as individual calling, group calling, caller IDs and GPS display.”

The Altus system also enables mobile operations via a SIT connection accessing the radio channels remotely. Altus can even be run from a tablet in the field, although SLSQ doesn’t presently use this feature.

SLSQ initially installed the DX-Altus system in a new Gold Coast communications centre at Mermaid Beach in 2013, having moved from Nobby’s Beach. Whilst digital capable, the first season saw the equipment used in analog mode. In 2014, as part of the digital roll-out, the Sunshine Coast DX-64 system was upgraded to a DX-Altus. The two centres have the ability to provide back-up for each other - if one system were to fail, SLSQ can access beaches from the other system.

“One of the things the system was also able to provide was to enable an easy transition from the analog system to the new digital system,” says Forward. “Because our system can operate with both systems in parallel, it made it easy for SLSQ to transition from one to the other.

“One of the key things they are starting to utilise now is the GPS capability of digital radio. “Back at the operator console there’s a GPS map, and they can actually see where the surf lifesavers are on the beach.”

The Altus is designed and manufactured at Omnitronics’ production facility in Perth, and it has been a big success story for the company. “We’ve got Altus systems installed all over the world,“ says Forward. “It’s been particularly popular in the maritime industry and marine-related industries.”

AA Radio’s engineering team, led by Nigel Porritt, “worked very closely with Icom and Omnitronics to get it all working, as this was the first time anywhere in the world that an Altus console had been interfaced with IDAS”, says Icom’s Bresnahan. “We had a little bit of a head start on this because we put a system in the Solomon Islands, which is a multisite trunked IDAS network, and that also runs the Omnitronics DX-64."

Working with a local manufacturer in Omnitronics made it easy too, says Bresnahan. “Any change or assistance we needed, they’re only a phone call away or an hour in an aircraft,” he says. “If one person didn’t know the answer, someone else did. It wasn’t a case of ‘I’ll find out for you’; they’d just put you straight through. There was no delay; it was just ‘let’s get this sorted’ and that’s all there was to it.”

Product shot of the IC-F5063 radio

Surf Life Saving Queensland uses Icom's IDAS technology, including the IC-F5063 mobile radio.

Easy to use

One important aspect of the overall digital transformation that needed to be managed was ensuring that the radio fleet was easy to use for volunteers of all ages and backgrounds. That meant keeping it simple and making operations as similar as possible to the way they had been during the analog era.

“We have to bear in mind the end user when we’re putting in a network - and with SLSQ, the bulk of the end users are part-time users, so it has to be easy to use,” says Argent. “The radio doesn’t need to have all the whiz-bang features. We need to be able to turn unneeded features off, partition programs within it, so we could set up radios with different formatting. It needed to work as similar as it could to the F60, because that was a very basic radio. Whilst these ones are very high tech, we needed to be able to simplify them."

“It’s FDMA, it’s true 6.25 KHz ultranarrowband, so it’s spectrally efficient. It’s extremely simple, the smarts are in the system,” says Bresnahan. “At the end of the day, you can have all these bells and whistles - but 90% of the time, if you really dig down and find out the application and what you actually want to do with the radio, it’s a simple case of ‘Bill wants to talk to Jack’.”

Building the network

“After the digital coverage tests were done, we started reprogramming the repeaters to digital mode,” says Wyatt. “SLSQ required a single cut-over date, because we had to make sure all the digital handhelds were out in the workforce, ready to use, because using them in multimode was going to be a little difficult for most of the users. The radios are capable of it, but after discussions with SLSQ we thought the potential for someone to pick up an old radio in analog mode in channel 1, and then pick up another one in digital mode and it has channel 1 on it as well, and not be able to talk to one another… the potential for it to create confusion was just too great.”

In an emergency situation, ease of use becomes paramount. The transceivers are slightly different to use than what SLSQ was accustomed to, “so we tried to emulate as much as we could of the old radios so that the new ones operated almost the same, even though physically they’re different”, says Wyatt. “So the nomenclature on the screens is the same as the old ones, for instance.”

“But programming the radios was something that we had to think very carefully about as well - voting capabilities, how they were implemented, which channels went in which voting blocks, all of those factors,” adds Wyatt. “So a lot of careful thought went into that, and we did that in consultation with SLSQ. Lifeguards, who were using the radios on a full-time basis, were enlisted to help us out with testing for suitability for all end users."

Up and running

As well as the mainland coast, SLSQ also has responsibility for several tourist islands. Moreton Island is covered by SLSQ volunteers during the on-season and Stradbroke Island is covered all year. Stradbroke Island is IP linked back to Surfcom; Moreton Island has a repeater on Cape Moreton with an RF link back to the Sunshine Coast.

“There’s a sufficient path there that we can RF link it,” says Wyatt. “The other repeater that covers Moreton is Redcliffe, straight across Moreton Bay. Redcliffe covers the western side, and Cape Moreton covers the eastern side of the island and right around the tip.

“There are repeaters also at Hervey Bay and Rainbow Beach, and eventually it will spread up the coast. The next plan is to move into the Wide Bay, Capricorn Region. That will happen in the 2015 off-season. And then the northern barrier region, as it’s known - Mackay, Townsville and Cairns - which will all feed back via IP into the Sunshine Coast eventually.”

While many sites were upgraded, some were new. “Redcliffe was a brand new site, on the roof of Redcliffe hospital,” says Wyatt. "We installed a new repeater there. Hervey Bay needed a complete overhaul and revamp, so all new equipment was installed there also.

“The other sites were essentially a case of reprogramming and testing - and we did extensive RF testing. We conducted a lot of testing so we could ensure coverage was sufficient… [and it] was significantly better than the conventional coverage. Much better, which surprised all of us. We expected a small increase, but we actually got something in the order of a 30% improvement in range.”

So much so that of the three Gold Coast sites - Point Danger, Burleigh Heads and the roof of the Q1 building - they currently only use Q1. “Q1 is a beautiful radio site, 79 stories in the sky, enabling coverage of the entire coastline from Pt Danger to Wave Break Island,” says Wyatt. “They used to use all three of those channels on the Gold Coast for coverage and, apart from a few spots in Tallebudgera Creek where topography prevents the signal reaching Q1, they just use the one, channel 7, on Q1 - the other two are on standby for back-up.”

Gold Coast beach

Surf Life Saving Queensland has two comms centres, one of which is located on the Gold Coast. A repeater is located on the top of the Q1 building (tallest building on the left of this photo), providing coverage over the entire area. Image courtesy Petra(Chillmimi)/Flickr/CC BY 2.0

A successful project

Looking back, now that the system is installed and running, how was the process? “It all went as smoothly as you could possibly hope for, largely due to the careful planning done before implementation,” says Wyatt. “AA Radio’s Michael Karpavicius headed up the project team in Melbourne and provided us with project timeline and plan, whilst the team in Queensland ensured that resources, both human and equipment, were available at the required times to ensure minimal slippage of critical dates.

“There’s been some fine-tuning since, and in this off-season we have an Altus upgrade coming up to introduce a few more features SLSQ have requested. The Icom radios will have a software upgrade as well, so the DSP will be slightly different. That’s the nature of radio comms these days. Technological advances during my career in radio have been fascinating. When I started, you used to change crystals to install new channels - it’s a little bit different now.”

It has been “good so far”, says Argent. “It’s obviously had a few teething problems - we’re still not 100% operational; there are gaps in our equipment, our technology. In the past we’ve relied on RF between our repeaters and back to our communication centres, and I think that hampers us on the Sunshine Coast, as it’s such a large expanse that it covers. On the Gold Coast we still use RF, but we have our main repeater on the top of the Q1 building, which covers the 23 clubs on the Gold Coast quite comfortably, almost all the way to Point Lookout.”

“The really good part about this whole process is that it’s never been a case of ‘their part of the network’ or ‘our part of the network’. If there’s a problem, we’re all in on it,” says Bresnahan. “We had a couple of issues that were clearly just Icom problems; well, Omnitronics were there all the way to make sure we found where our problem was. And likewise, when there was an Omnitronics design issue, we had guys up in Queensland working hand in hand with them, making sure they got it across the line. It was brilliant; it was just like one team.”

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