By Paul Hemsley
Victorian Minister for Police and Emergency Services Kim Wells has announced that the state’s Country Fire Authority’s (CFA) of almost 500 brigades will now be able to talk directly with headquarters over a new digital communications network.
The communications upgrade has come through the Regional Radio Dispatch Service (RRDS) project, valued at $42.9 million, and has been spurred along by the federal government making the switch from analogue to digital broadcasting spectrum by the end of 2013.
This change stirred controversy among state emergency service organisations (ESOs) in mid-2012 when the federal government announced that it would auction off chunks of digital frequency to private telecommunications companies.
However ESOs collectively said they needed the 700MHz of spectrum that the government was planning to sell off to ensure sufficient communications during emergencies. At the time, they wanted a slot of 20MHz in that range, but by the end of the year they were allocated only half that amount in the purportedly weaker 800MHz range.
Despite this setback in spectrum allocation, regional emergency organisations like the CFA are necessarily adopting new digital communications technology as a result of the federal government’s analogue-to-digital switchover.
The new system is expected to allow brigades to directly communicate with those who dispatch them to emerge and will be conducted through the system that bypasses the present need for CFA crews to relay communications via local group communications officer to give important information about the status of an incident and location of crews.
Telecommunications company Telstra will build and maintain the network with support from Motorola Solutions over the next 18 months, with the rollout expected to begin in November 2013 and availability to all regional brigades by mid-2014.
The upgrade is expected to be a key improvement to the state’s regional emergency communications by providing clearer radio dispatch coverage and is already available to Victoria Police, Melbourne Fire Brigade, Ambulance Victoria and the CFA brigades in metropolitan Melbourne.
CFA chief officer, Euan Ferguson said the rollout is part of the switchover to digitally enabled Tait radios which are frequently operating on an analogue network.
“It will also reduce the need for group communications officers to support day-to-day dispatch communications activities. This role, however, will remain essential for incident management communications and these members will continue to maintain their skills through regular training and exercises,” Mr Ferguson said.
He said the new digital network will initially be dedicated to dispatching regional CFA brigades and will use newly assigned channels.
“Fireground and command and control channels are not changing as an outcome of this project,” he said.
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