Can Digital Address Analog Paging’s Coverage Problems?
Tuesday, November 04, 2014 | Comments

Shortly after many public-safety agencies completed VHF narrowbanding, they discovered degraded coverage, particularly for analog paging systems. Volunteer and career firefighters who carried and relied on VHF paging were not receiving pages in places where they normally received them.

Some agencies are looking at digital alphanumeric messaging to replace their analog paging networks to address the coverage problem and gain new features. RACOM, a dealer based in Marshalltown, Iowa, partnered with Swissphone to offer the Swiss company’s DiCal digital paging solution to the U.S. market earlier this year.

Analog systems with tone and voice paging are prevalent in Iowa. In fact, U.S. fire paging is still virtually all analog compared with Germany, which is already 70 percent digital.

Iowa has 800 fire stations and about 15,000 volunteer firefighters. Career departments also use paging in conjunction with station alerting and radio. Many combination fire departments rely on VHF paging to help notify their staff for additional resources and other administrative functions, said John-Paul Schilling, fire chief for Cedar Falls (Iowa) Fire Rescue.

Often the paging networks have too few sites. Some agencies have upgraded the networks to include simulcast. The analog systems also can take a long time to get a page out, but a digital text message takes only an instant. And automating a digital page from a CAD system further speeds the process and makes it easier on the dispatcher.

A countywide digital paging network including pagers can cost between $300,000 and $500,000 depending on the size of the county and the levels of redundancy.

Marco Stadler, managing director of North America and chief marketing officer (CMO) of Swissphone, said the DiCal product offers several benefits based on its architecture.

Backhaul, either microwave or fiber, is not required for every site, reducing costs and giving fire departments more flexibility for site location. The architecture is also designed for better in-building coverage than analog. A traditional analog system uses less sites, but uses high towers. The digital system is similar to a cellular design with more sites closer to the ground for greater penetration. Secure communications with encryption protects the privacy of victims and helps fire/EMS personnel to respond without the interference or obstruction of the public and eavesdroppers.

Iowa’s Black Hawk County, which includes Cedar Falls, is in the initial stages of determining the viability of a digital paging system. “From a fire administrator’s view of the future, we have serious concerns if the FCC should mandate another narrowbanding of the VHF spectrum,” said Schilling.

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