Radio silence in the field with digital void

The government’s much-touted new CFA radios fail again – no amount of press releases will make them work inside buildings. Firefighters in Wangaratta have only partially switched over to higherquality digital communications, after getting radio silence in some of the city’s key buildings.

The switchover was meant to occur last month, but tests revealed the radios could not pick up a signal inside the Wangaratta and District Base Hospital or Rural City of Wangaratta building, effectively cutting off communication between firefighters inside.

Wangaratta Fire Brigade senior station officer, Carl Stibiij, said firefighters were forced to continue using old UHF radios instead of the digital upgrade.

A “vehicle mobile repeater” installed in the fire truck on Tuesday has now partly fixed the digital radios to allow firefighters direct contact with Emergency Services Telecommunication Authority (ESTA) dispatch operators, commonly known as VicFire.

“Before we had that, we had no signal at all,” Mr Stibiij told the Wangaratta Chronicle.

“They have addressed a fair bit of our problem… What we need to do is ensure we always have the repeater switched on in the truck.”

But the digital radios inside the hospital and councils buildings only work on the statewide VicFire channel, with no signal on the local channel that firefighters need to communicate privately during a fire.

“We’re going to have issues here on a local level,” Mr Stibiij said.

He said firefighters will continue to use both digital and UHF radios for the different purposes until a permanent solution is found. The digital signal problem was initially discovered last month when firefighters responding to a fire at the hospital’s Kerferd Unit discovered they could not communicate with each other inside the building. A Country Fire Authority (CFA) spokesperson said the digital radios are a major upgrade of the state’s communications systems that will improve fire brigades’ service.

“As with any new technology there are challenges, which CFA is addressing as a matter of priority to ensure the ongoing safety of firefighters and the public,” she said.

“CFA is working closely with Telstra to find a solution to the digital reception issues inside the Wangaratta hospital and the council building to maintain the outstanding service our members deliver to the community.”

Outside of Wangaratta’s problem buildings, fire brigades in District 23 have welcomed the digital radios that provide a clear signal, especially in remote areas that previously could not communicate with fire command at all using analogue radios. CFA’s Hume acting regional commander, Stuart Broad, said the switch to high-quality communications was part of the $66 million Regional Radio Dispatch Service.

“The upgrade to the digital network has given us a whole new level of clarity to our communications,” he said.

“By talking directly to ESTA dispatch operators, or VicFire as it is commonly known, brigades can save valuable time during emergencies, which improves safety for our members and the wider community.”

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