Seven years ago, the Baltimore City Fire Department met with Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke to make the case for a new communications system.
The department needed one badly. The system we were using was 17 years old. It had served the department reasonably well - longer than we had anticipated, in fact - yet there were clear signs we needed to make a transition and we needed to make it soon.
For example, there was new technology that would provide us with considerable new features and capabilities, but the existing system couldn't be upgraded to accommodate these technologies, and maintenance costs for the older system were rising.
There were also coverage issues. The old system had never provided us the coverage we needed, and aging hardware simply made that problem worse.
While the mayor never questioned the fire department's need for a new communications system, his concern was that other city departments soon would need to replace aging technology themselves. The opportunity was there to use the fire department's immediate communications need as a catalyst to research a solution for everyone.
At the meeting, Mayor Schmoke suggested a new communications vision for the city, namely a shared, centralized system that would serve all of the city's public safety and public service departments. That meeting redefined the city's approach to radio communications, including how we analyzed department needs and wrote specifications for the funding and implementation of the city-wide communication system.
This process made it possible for us to make the move to an 800mhz digital, trunked communications system, a move we were initially unsure we could make. The fire department portion of the system came on line in July 1998, and the Baltimore Police and Public Works departments should be on line later this year.
A big job, tackled in phases Even as we roll out the new shared system, it has delivered invaluable benefits. It provides us compatibility with the increasing numbers of 800mhz systems used by jurisdictions surrounding the city. The system provides agencies access to sophisticated communications technology that many wouldn't be able to afford individually. It has saved the city dollars because multiple agencies work from a common infrastructure. We have capacity and better use of our available frequencies, as well as the coverage we've never had before.
The transition to the new system began with the mayor's approval to hire a consultant to identify the specific needs of city agencies and the technological options. He made the commitment to involve the agencies that would use the system in its design. The mayor recognized that communications needs differed among city agencies, sometimes dramatically.
The fire department, for example, needs a communications system that's reliable in the dense downtown area, in high-rise buildings with a lot of concrete and steel. The police department needs a system that functions reliably from portable radios in moving vehicles. The resulting system design accommodated both extremes.
The city was realistic in developing the implementation plan. Particular attention was paid to financing, because sophisticated communications technology isn't cheap. The city realized it couldn't implement a city-wide system at one time, so implementation would need to be done in phases.
"We structured the communications system as a capital project that we would complete over four years," explains Finance Director William Brown. "That enabled us to implement the system in clearly defined, logical phases we could afford."
The first implementation phase focused on the system backbone and the fire department's communications requirements. Phase two focuses on the police and public works departments, whose needs were to be accommodated as funding became available.
A team-driven process The road from the first brainstorming meetings to actual system implementation has been long, and it still continues. The city awarded the system contract toin July 1996. Teamwork, and the creativity that comes from groups dedicated to a common goal, has been the factor that has most distinguished this project.
Two teams drove the entire process. A policy committee kept the project on budget and facilitated interagency communications. Committee members included Finance Director Brown, Fire Chief Herman Williams Jr., Police Commissioner Thomas Frazier, Public Works Director George Balog and Rochelle Young of the city's comptroller office.
The implementation committee developed the system's Request for Proposal, gathered information from potential users on the system design and provided that material to Motorola, and coordinated the system's site construction and installation. Asst. Fire Chief Ray Lehr has served the committee as project director. Other committee members include representatives from the fire, police and public works departments.
"One of the reasons the team approach has worked so well is that every team member had veto power over any system issue before the committees," says Lehr. "Some may believe providing each agency with that level of power is a formula for disaster. In this situation it was the formula for success. Every agency took ownership of the system. Each believed their contributions to the process mattered and would be accommodated."
As important as this process was to this project, ultimately its benefits will extend far beyond the communications system. "This structure has enabled agencies to develop a keen understanding of one another's concerns," says Frazier. "This will only benefit the city as we develop the communications system in the future while tackling other public safety and service issues."
800MHz technology meets needs The Baltimore system is one of the first Motorola ASTRO 800mhz digital systems contracted by a city in the United States. The $65 million system includes 28 channels and nine simulcast sites and is connected to the city's SONET fiber-optic network. Additional optical fiber was installed to support future expansion of the city's telecommunications needs.
The first installation phase included the development of nine antenna sites and installation of the portion of the system the fire department would use. Initially, there will be 5,000 mobile and portable radios on the system. Automatic Vehicle Location technology is installed in selected ems vehicles and will be installed in selected public works vehicles.
The system enables agencies to organize radios into hundreds of pre-arranged talk groups, of which the fire department currently uses 48. Once completed, the system also will be compliant with the Common Air Interface portion of the Project 25 standard for digital radios. (The cai describes how individual digital radios communicate with each other.)
Dispatch for the system will be centralized at the city's Emergency Communications Center, which will serve the city's fire, police and public works agencies. The ecc will have 36 dispatch positions.
The fire department currently dispatches from the city's Alternate Communications Center in a downtown building. The dispatch center was temporarily located there because of an asbestos problem in the ecc. Once the asbestos is removed and the ecc re-opened, the acc will serve as system backup dispatch center, as well as a training center and home for Baltimore's Weather Command.
The fire department was very deliberate in the way we tested the 800mhz technology to be sure it provided the coverage we needed, especially in buildings. The system coverage requirement was 95%. To test that, the city was divided into 200 grid squares using the system's fleet map. The downtown area was further divided into 200 additional squares.
Then we selected a representative structure in each grid and tested coverage in that building, from the basement to the roof and in each corner of the building. We tested stairwells and elevators. We also tested two tunnels under Baltimore harbor, where antennas were installed at the mouths of the tunnels and Radiax cable within the tunnels.
In every portion of the test, the system delivered the coverage we required. Obviously, there are locations or structures in the city where we might not be able to get the communications coverage we want when we need it. Unlike our former system, the new system emits a "bonking" tone when a transmission doesn't go through, so a user can then move to try to establish a better connection.
Trial by fire, big time Then the Charles Towers fire on Feb. 5, 1999, put the system to a real-life test. Charles Towers is a 30-story twin-tower apartment complex in downtown Baltimore. The fire department received the first alarm at about 1:30 a.m. When we arrived, we encountered a fire on the 15th floor that had trapped about 200 residents.
This was precisely the type of incident at which our previous system often failed to provide us the reliable coverage we needed, but the new 800mhz system performed flawlessly. The department had about 200 firefighters and almost half its vehicle fleet on hand for the eight-alarm blaze.
The new system provided us excellent command and control. We had 12 talk groups working the incident. The department established a communications patch that enabled us to communicate with the state police, who provided helicopter support. The helicopter was used to take firefighters to the building's roof to rescue and reassure residents who'd moved up to or near the roof.
The fire was finally brought under control at 3:30 a.m., just two hours after the initial call. The 800mhz radio system enabled us to manage all of our resources at the scene efficiently. Only one resident died, of a heart attack.
One of the system's features that proved especially valuable was automatic radio identification. Whenever a firefighter depresses the push-to-talk button, that radio's id is relayed automatically to the dispatcher, so the dispatcher immediately knows who's making the call. This feature is critical if a radio's microphone should stick open.
With our previous system, if a push-to-talk button stuck open, we could lose use of the entire communications channel on which that radio was operating. The new system enables us to identify the malfunctioning radio and determine how to notify that firefighter. Even if we can't locate the radio, we no longer lose use of the channel for long, since the radios have a one-minute time-out feature.
Our new 800mhz communications system has been a cooperative effort. No one agency made this system a reality; it reflects the contributions of every agency that will use it. The approach we took generated considerable trust in the system design process, support for the shared system concept and a sense of individual system ownership that not only has enabled us to implement this system, but also will ensure it's used to full potential in the future.
The fire department took the lead on the project partly by necessity. We had the most immediate communications need and that made us a natural choice in the mayor's view, yet the department brought an invaluable perspective to the entire process. Our daily experience of working in teams allowed us to bring a broad group of users together with diverse communications needs, and keep those agencies focused on the common goal.
Lehr's role as project director enabled the fire department to ensure that its specific communications needs were met. In fact, his expertise in team building also ensured that the needs of every agency on the system were met.
Our work on this project has demonstrated that sophisticated 800mhz technology, and shared systems, do work for the fire service. Our system has delivered the features, capabilities and coverage we need to do our work every day.
"This project also has demonstrated the leadership the fire service brings to complicated issues," Williams says. "Few issues can be more challenging than those of creating a shared communications capability. We believe we have created a valuable road map others can use to work through these issues confidently."