Homeland Security and Public Safety

NASCAR Race Offers Testing Ground for Multiband Radio

Race series allows Arizona first responders to test radios across disparate frequencies in a high noise environment.

Approximately 75,000 fans converged on Phoenix International Raceway for the Feb. 27 Subway Fresh Fit 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup race, doubling the population of the region. As early as Feb. 21, fans began arriving in their fifth wheels and travel trailers to camp out in anticipation of a week of races.

“We’re managing a small town out there that pops up for one week only,” said Lee Baumgarten, director of operations for Phoenix International Raceway. “So we’re challenged to police them and make sure we have fire and medical protection and all those sort of things.”

The event provided a good opportunity to test multiband radios as race officials and the city’s ambulance provider were using UHF frequencies, firefighters were using VHF frequencies, while law enforcement was using 700 and 800 MHz frequencies, according to Jesse Cooper, communications/IT project manager for the Phoenix Police Department. An estimated 400 responders with agencies — including the Avondale Fire Department, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, Glendale police and fire departments, Phoenix police and fire departments, and the Arizona Division of Emergency Management — coordinated activities using 46 Harris Corp. Unity XG-100 radios.

Tom Chirhart, program manager for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate’s Multi-Band Radio Program, said the Arizona pilot was designed so responder agencies can set criteria in line with their missions. Some of the criteria include durability and being able to withstand exposure to heat, liquids, chemicals and sand.

Following the race, radios were distributed to law enforcement agencies across the state to test the concept in their day-to-day operations. The test lasted through March, and by mid-month 20 agencies had joined the pilot.

Cooper, who is the law enforcement representative on the Phoenix Urban Areas Security Initiative interoperable communications subcommittee, said the Arizona Highway Patrol uses UHF, but often interfaces with local law enforcement agencies that use a trunked system. The Phoenix Fire Department uses VHF radios for hazard-zone operations and then uses a digital trunked system for nonhazard emergency medical services-type calls. Emergency responders in rural areas often use conventional VHF radios.

Cooper sees a place for multiband radios in his department depending on an officer’s function. “For a standard Phoenix police officer that I manage, they do all of their business day to day on a 700-800 MHz system,” he said. “They may not have as much of a need to use the other bands as some of our command and control officers or somebody who is on a task force working with another jurisdiction on a day-to-day basis.”

Radios Operated Adequately

The multiband radios operated over the Phoenix Regional Wireless Cooperative 800 trunked system, which provided an additional interoperability test. The regional wireless network, comprised of 40 towers covering more than 2,000 miles, is built on a Project 25 digital Motorola SmartZone simulcast system. It supports 26,000 available subscribers in 935 talk groups across 139 channels. The Phoenix regional network provided the primary communications system used at the raceway, though UHF and VHF radios operated over separate infrastructure.

No radio lost its affiliation with the 800 MHz system during the event, said Morgan Hoaglin, communications coordinator for the Arizona Division of Emergency Management. All tests were completed, and police and emergency management officials said the radios’ performance was acceptable although there were a few issues.

Hoaglin said a metal building used for triage presented the roughest scenario for testing the radios. “I won’t say they did great, but they were better than adequate in that rough coverage area,” Hoaglin said. “That’s not to say that it didn’t go digital for a slight bit of time and you wouldn’t lose a syllable every once in a great while. But as far as maintaining communications quality and allowing the operational communications needs to carry on, it was better than minimal. It was good.”

Previously someone may have had to go outside the building to communicate. “This was not the case this time around,” he said.
Cooper said initial feedback from first responders included ergonomic issues with the antenna being too long and stiff. They also would have liked longer battery life. “But we did hear positive feedback from those who were using it that they did like the ability to transition across the three bands using a single radio,” he said.

Harris has since designed a more flexible antenna option for the radio. “The Unity model number XG-100 is our first true full band, full spectrum radio in the land-mobile industry,” said Dennis Martinez, chief technology officer for Harris RF Communications. “It operates on all the frequency bands currently used by federal, state and local, which includes frequency bands in the UHF part of the spectrum — VHF, UHF and 700-800 MHz.”

In addition to being capable of operating across spectrum, the Unity XG-100 is also designed to operate across multiple system types including analog, conventional and trunked, digital and Project 25.

Responders at the track said they would like to see improvements in how the Unity XG-100 scans across conventional and trunked radio channels. “There are certain complexities because of the incompatibilities of conventional and trunking modes,” Martinez said.

Three More Tests Planned

The test in Arizona was the first of four planned for the Unity XG-100 this year. Details of the other tests have not been set, but the goal is to test the equipment in a variety of conditions, including deserts, the cold and wet winters of the Northeast, and multistate border conditions.

Experience from the Hurricane Katrina response and smoke jumpers fighting wildfires led the DHS to require that the radios use alkaline battery packs for situations where power grids can go down. Another important requirement is that the radios are intrinsically safe for firefighters, Chirhart said. “You need a piece of equipment that will not create a spark so that if a firefighter goes into a building with a report of a gas smell, or a Coast Guardsman goes on board a liquid propane gas tanker — you don’t want to see a big hole in the water and nothing left.” 

The racetrack also provided an opportunity to test the radio’s noise-cancelling capabilities with responders working in the center of the track and cars whizzing by at 200 mph. The DHS received reports of responders unable to hear their radios over the sounds of the environments they operate in. “It was unintelligible,” he said, “so they’ve had to redevelop the directional microphones and things like that and noise-cancelling software that will eliminate the background noise.”

In addition to tests of the Harris Unity and Thales Liberty multiband radios, the DHS plans to test radios from other manufacturers, including Motorola, and compile the findings into a procurement guide by February or March 2012 to help first responders identify equipment that will meet their needs.