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7 Steps to Better Radios for Campus police and security officers

A lot of progress has been achieved in the field of communications interoperability since 9/11 when 120 New York City firefighters lost their lives because they didn’t receive warnings that the World Trade Center’s south tower had collapsed. First responders are now more likely to possess radios that can actually talk with other systems from different agencies during a crisis. 

Still, according to the “2006 Survey on Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness” conducted by the U.S. Conference of Mayors, 40 percent of America’s cities are four years away from achieving full communications interoperability. Like city officials, campus administrators and law enforcement agencies across the nation are working to improve their communications interoperability with varying degrees of success. 

Because this issue can literally mean the difference between life and death of not only first responders, but also the campus constituents they protect, below are seven steps a healthcare organization or educational institution must take in order to properly upgrade their radios.

1. Involve Key Stakeholders in the Planning Process: From the very beginning, all of the personnel and agencies that will be using or affected by the upgraded communications system should work together so the new system will meet their requirements. Key stakeholders include facility management, hospital management, IT, campus and school district administrators, campus security and/or police. They must be onboard and agree to any system changes or upgrades. K-12 schools may need to have this type of planning done on a district, city or county level.

During this phase, talk groups should be designated so confusion is avoided during incidents and everyday operations. Talk groups allow communications among people within a building or group of buildings and can include users from outside departments or agencies.

Personnel who are in the wrong talk groups run the risk of being lost in the system. When this happens, messages intended for them may get misdirected, wasting precious time and resources during an emergency. 

2. Coordinate With Surrounding Agencies: Campuses must identify the local city and county police, as well as other agencies and campuses responsible for responding to major emergencies involving fire, hazardous materials, natural disasters, riots, transportation disasters, terrorist attacks and the like. 

Hospitals, schools and universities must determine the role each agency would play during an incident, as well as who has priority over whom. How the supporting agencies will be notified when an event occurs should also be determined.

3. Find the Right Frequency for Your Radios : Campus officials must obtain authorization from the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) to operate on the spectrum. Additionally, the campus’ radio frequency should be compatible with that of surrounding agencies so the equipment will be able to communicate with each other (see No. 4 below regarding interoperability). Unfortunately, because so many organizations require frequencies for their radios, there is a lot of competition for spectrum, making this step of the process extremely challenging.

As a result, smaller campuses, such as community colleges, may only have access to business frequencies, which are normally very crowded. And during emergencies, spectrum can become even more congested than usual. 

Some radio units, however, include subaudible tones or digital signaling protocol that can eliminate or greatly reduce interference. With this feature, only those using their designated private digital line will be able to hear the messages being conveyed. Other communication devices have multiple levels of prioritization, which allow a mission-critical commander to get through with the push of a button. 

Frequency interference with hospital equipment, such as wireless heart monitors, can be avoided with the proper engineering. For the most part, spectrum that is set aside for public safety operations will not cause interference with healthcare operations. 

4. Plan for System Interoperability : Hospitals, schools and universities should determine how their radios’ unique signaling features will be handled on their systems and by receiving agencies. “Understanding the environment in which you want to communicate is the most important, you need to understand what your local municipality is using. 

Cities and states are now adopting communications equipment that complies with the Association of Public-Safety Communications Officers’ (APCO) Project 25 (P25) interoperability standards. Campuses with radios that are not P25 compliant can have interoperability issues when their municipality or county abides by this standard. 

It should be noted that this problem can be rectified if cities and counties adopt radios that can communicate in both P25 or non-P25 modes (see P25 compliant models). Additionally, equipment that isn’t P25 compliant can use a gateway patch to tie disparate systems together

The simplest approach to interoperability, however, may be to swap radios with local agencies and designate liaisons. Despite this step’s simplicity, in the overall scheme of things, it is a stop-gap measure until P25 compliant equipment can be purchased or some other form of interoperability can be achieved. 

Whatever system is selected, it is important that it not be over-engineered. Radios with too many features can be more difficult to operate and can be prone to more malfunctions than simple systems. 

5. Conduct an Appropriate Site Coverage Survey: When adopting a new wireless communications system, it is important to verify there will be complete coverage of the campus. A qualified integrator can test each antenna’s and repeater’s placement to determine that radio signals are being received. 

This is especially important for hospitals, schools and universities that have recently constructed new buildings or expanded in size. Additionally, tree foliage and steel girders can block radio frequency signals, and electromagnetic interference (EMI) from nearby power lines, airports or industrial facilities can affect signal strength. 

6. Always Have a Back-up Communications Plan: If the system fails, there should be alternative arrangements so communication with outside agencies is still possible. A campus should designate a person or department responsible for the shift to the back-up system.

There should also be adequate back up generators so a campus’ communications equipment will still work even if there is no power (a common occurrence in natural disasters). 

7. Don’t Forget About Maintenance, Battery Replacement : An educational institution or healthcare organization must designate the person or persons responsible for maintenance and resolving technical problems. It is wise to identify as many of the potential issues beforehand so there are no surprises when they do eventually arise. 

Additionally, batteries should be checked and replaced often, even if the radios are only for emergency use. It could be years until a campus uses its emergency communications equipment, and batteries can expire under these circumstances if they are not changed regularly.

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