When I was young, my father worked for the telephone company. He was a lineman who climbed the poles where the POTS lines were strung. Then he went into the PBX systems and then larger more complex systems like hospitals and colleges. We had phone equipment in our basement and I saw his work truck many times. I could relate to his job and the challenges it posed with the customers and his dispatch that sent him on customer repair jobs.
Fast forward to my professional career in telecommunications, this knowledge worked well for me. I was able to relate to the phone system repair technicians and what roadblocks they may run into while trying to get my 9-1-1 and PBX/VOIP/SIP systems back in service. I could speak their language and relate to their work life. I could navigate my way through red tape and get faster service and detailed troubleshooting information by being part of their team. Heck, some of them even knew my dad by name even though he retired from the phone company nearly 10 years prior to my start in 9-1-1. Although now that I think about it, “Meatball” is an easy nickname to remember! Thanks Dad!
So too with my working relationship with radio repair technicians. They can be your greatest reference/tool/asset when your radio system, console or talkgroup is out of service. Technology has made every PSAP’s radio communications very complex. UHF, VHF, Trunked, Digital, 400mhz, 800mhz, microwave and all sorts of other possibilities can be thrown in there. The radio tech can teach you how to help yourself when things go wrong.
Knowing how your PSAP system is built and what components you can use to troubleshoot will do two things for you. First, you can be the subject matter expert in your communication center that people go to for help and answers. Second, when repair is needed you can speak with real knowledge and authority on what the problem is. The technicians see this and you gain respect with them on how committed you and your center is to keeping things working properly. They see you as their “eyes on the ground” while they are elsewhere. There are times when you may not get service to your site for hours. Knowing how to “patch” things or find another way is you thinking outside the box.
Many radio technicians are military veterans. The knowledge they have learned and lived with while serving is extremely beneficial while working in the private sector. The tech’s I know all are very hard working and happy to share their stories and their knowledge. I was inquisitive and asked them questions about the simplest of things like “should we clean and service the foot pedals?” to more complex ones like “how can we avoid losing the fiber link if it gets cut again?”. Planning ahead so there are no problems is part of the job.
For example, let’s say you are working dispatch at a console that is a touch screen video monitor. There are several “boxes” on your screen that are individually set to different frequencies you talk to your officers with. You may be used to using the box that is top center for all traffic stops. All of a sudden you see a big red X on that box, you try to transmit and get a “bonk” or worse, nothing! That officer is in the field and you can’t hear him or talk to him on the radio. Your console needs to have other radio options you can go to and find the frequency, move to it and your back in business. Now all you have to do is call repair and tell them the specific problem, and you have a temporary solution with another associated radio to use until they can be on site.
The dispatcher or field officer using the radio may be a problem. If you do not know that you have a repeater on your system that has to capture your voice transmission before you can start speaking that is a problem. With trunked radios this is the case. Officers in the field may be quick to talk and you won’t hear the first part of their transmission. What you hear is “05 is on scene” and the real transmission should have been “1605 is on scene”.
That unit is speaking into the radio too soon. Likewise with the dispatcher speaking too soon. Your field officers may hear “arrest” and what actually was said is “full arrest”. You can see how this changes things. Learning the why from radio experts helps you understand your equipment and the proper way to use it.
The PSAP I managed most recently had the radio tower about a quarter mile from the equipment room in dispatch. We were connected by underground fiber. One day I’m driving into the parking lot and I see the road crew just north of the radio tower. Now I know that the lines are marked underground and I was pretty certain that the guys running the back hoe knew the critical infrastructure we had built. So I proceeded into the dispatch center and went about my daily business when all of a sudden every dispatcher working suddenly gasped and said “what’s happening?”
I immediately ran to see the radio consoles and there were red X’s on every display for every radio. I knew this was big. I remembered the outside construction and sure enough, they cut through the fiber three feet underground. The only way we could communicate with the field responders was by portable radio. We had to gather portables for every dispatcher to use for every dedicated talkgroup.
This was not an easy task for sure. You only have two hands and to dedicate one to PTT a portable (or 2 or 3) while answering phones and typing in the CAD does not make for a good day in dispatch. The unbelievable part of this story is that it happened with another contracted crew a few years later when they were installing outside handrails! Yes, the fiber was cut again, same scenario to resolve the break. That led to running all new fiber because it was compromised, and we added a back up microwave link from tower to equipment room.
Fast actions and calling the radio repair technicians with specific details made all the difference in getting our PSAP back in service. It’s easy to get to know someone really well when you work under stressful and time sensitive circumstances. Much like we do daily with our field personnel, police and fire.
Trouble could be at a tower site, a repeater, an antenna, a power supply, a mobile radio connection, a master system issue or any variety of things. Like with anything in a PSAP, knowledge is gained with experience and years of service. If you are new to this field, learn as much as you can from the veterans and the repair technicians. This knowledge just may help save a life when the time comes.