Wales is the poor relation when it comes to a lot of things and when it comes to safety nothing is different. Fire brigades in England and Scotland have for some time had the digital radio system known as Firelink. It has taken four years for it to arrive in Wales, but now 1,000 new terminals have been fitted in vehicles and control rooms. The new radios come with a promise of clearer calls where background noises and crackles are removed. The system allows Firefighters to talk directly to each other without going via their control centre and to link with other agencies allowing for a co-ordinated multi-agency response.
South Wales chief fire officer Andy Marles said "This new system will enhance the services' ability to respond collectively to major incidents, by allowing fire and rescue appliances supporting major incidents the ability to speak directly to the control room managing the incident - wherever it may be. The system is also more resilient and secure and offers interoperability with other blue lights services. All these important functions help us as a fire and rescue service to continually protect the communities in which we serve to the highest of standards."
The Firelink system made by Airwave is based on the Tetra system, which has already been blamed by some Police Officers for health problems and heavily criticised as been useless and unworkable by officers in certain areas. Heavily built up areas and remote locations away from repeaters apparently suffer more dead spots than they did with the old UHF radios. Some Police officers I speak to say they use their mobile telephones more than their radios.
In the USA Firecrews complained that on their digital system they could not hear what their colleagues are saying. The problem is in the "vocoders" that digitise speech and then compress the bits into a 12.5-kilohertz band of radio spectrum. Vocoders are designed for normal human speech, so their output degrades in the presence of loud background noise, or if a breathing mask muffles the firefighter's voice. Maybe with Firelink Airwave have solved this problem. I doubt it, but time will tell.
One big advantage to using Tetra is the security of the system compared to analogue or at least that is what the authorities think. Well okay it is harder to listen in to but not too hard, so the only ones listening in will be the criminals and terrorist who have stolen an emergency service radio or have hacked the codes. The scanner enthusiast can no longer listen in and that to me is an area of concern, it smacks of one more step towards the Big Brother State. I believe that if they have nothing to hide the emergency services should be more open. There is probably no need to worry I am sure the makers of scanners are working on that one right now, if they haven’t already.
The real advantage of this system is the interoperability with the other blue lights services. The lesson was learned at Lockerbie in 1988 when none of the emergency services could talk to each other. Back then hundreds of Raynet volunteers were called in to help. Maybe we will not be needed next time but I am no so sure. The government has taken over twenty years to implement a solution and that is just another reason to not leave our personal and community safety to the professionals.