CB Radio Remains Essential Component of Bushfire Communication Strategy

As the Australian bushfire crisis begins to abate, we take a look at the role UHF CB has played in enabling communication for Rural Fire services and their supporting resources across Australia.

Preface

It’s a scorching summer day on the Australian eastern coast. As the mercury approaches 40 degrees, the burned orange hue of an ever darkening sky is the harbinger of a looming fire front – rapid and indiscriminate in its destructive approach. The wind, whilst usually a welcome relief from the dry, relentless heat, bears down ominously, driving the flames closer and closer towards the houses, people and communities in its path.

This is a story which has repeated itself across a plethora of towns across eastern Australia – Nelligan, Bega, Meribula, Mallacoota. As brave volunteers and professionals from Rural Fire Services, National Parks and Wildlife and private citizens rally together to combat the unprecidented bushfire crisis which has beleagured the eastern coast for the better part of three months.

Whilst the accounts of selflessness, bravery and sacrifice are as numerous as they are valerous, the focus of this dissertation will be on one of the most crticial components of any bushfire response strategy – communication.

A Brief Analysis of Bushfire Communication Systems

Today’s firegrounds are awash in connectivity. From 4G data services to HF radio, a plethora of different communications technologies are used to ensure constant contact between firecom and units in the field.

Government Radio Networks

Government Radio Network radios connect to a consolidated statewide network managed by the state government. This allows any station within range of a repeater to call any other station on the network, regardless of which repeater that radio is connected to. Generally, these networks are used for upper-level command and control purposes. In some cases, rural fire services near more populated areas will use these radios as their primary radio system.

Private Mobile Radio Networks

Private mobile radio networks are smaller, regional radiocommunications networks run by either a single or multiple rural fire service command. Generally, these networks are not linked/trunked to each other. In most districts, these networks are used as the primary radio system for rural fire brigade members to communicate between each other. In some cases, these networks will have a small subset of channels linked back to regional and state operations facilities for better visibility and control of fireground operations.

These networks also have a series of simplex (direct radio-to-radio) channels which bypass the repeater network. These channels are designed to free up capacity on the repeater networks and allow communication between operational units and firefighters who are deployed at the fireground.

Paging Systems

A typical alpha pager

In addition to voice communications, most rural fire services also utilise commercial paging networks provided by organizations such as Vodafone (formerly Hutchison Telecommunications). In some cases, rural fire brigades will also operate tone-based audio pagers on their own radio systems. Although antiquated by modern standards, pagers form the cornerstone of turnout notification systems for rural fire volunteers and are renowned for their low cost, ruggedness, reliability and long battery life.

Mobile & Satellite Phones

Although offical use of personal mobile phones is generally not endorsed by rural fire command, their use is nonetheless widespread. Satellite phones also often form part of the communications kit for brigades which regularly operate outside of the range of normal mobile telecommunications networks. Whilst more expensive to own and operate than a regular mobile phone or two-way radio, satellite phones are a valuable resource for communication with other public networks are not available.

UHF CB

Despite push back from the command structure in various bridgades (notably South Australia), UHF CB continues to be a fundamentally critical communications tool for most rural fire bridgades, especially for interoperability.

Bureaucracy Free Frequencies

Whilst there is no denying the fact that significant progress has been made towards interoperability between interstate, interdepartmental and interorganizational radio systems, UHF CB remains the only radio system which provides guaranteed interoperability between all participating organizations and parties on and around the fireground.

“Clearly, at this point in time, this is the only nationally available radio system that has wide-spread access and acceptability.”

Parlimentry House Committee – Bushfires Inquiry Report (2003) – Annex F

The widespread availability and installed base of UHF CB radio transcievers makes it the de-facto standard for radiocommunications across commercial, volunteer and professional services alike, both on and off the fireground. The lack of requirement for licencing for UHF CB usage means that there is no barrier to entry for the posession and use of these devices, resulting in a plethora of users (such as landowners, plant/logistics operators and the general public) who would otherwise have no communication ability with firefighters having at least some form of local communication.

This is especially important for third party commercial and civillian operators assisting fireground operations. Commercial plant operators (such as dozer/scoop fleets) and logistics support (such as water tanker fleets) do not have access to government controlled radio networks and providing them with the equipment nessasary to do so would be both logistically and financially prohibitive. UHF CB is uniquely suited to bridge what would otherwise be a significant gap in fireground communication capabilities.

“The need to be able to link in and communicate at an individual unit/appliance level to SES, QPWS, Forestry and landowners through the UHF CB network or the network of their current operation is operationally critical.”

Rural Fire Bulletin – December 2014

Radio of Last Resort

UHF CB is also an essential resource as a service of last resort, enabling communications between fireground operators and the general public which does not rely on centralized infrastructure. During high impact bushfire events, centralized telecommunications infrastructure (such as commercial mobile phone base stations and goverment radio network repeater systems) becomes vulnerable, due to both direct assault from fire fronts and damage to their supporting infrastructure such as the power transmission network and ariel (pole attached) fibre optic networks used for backhaul. Additionally, the capacity to service and repair this infrastruture is inhibited or outright prevented by these same fire conditions, resulting in an inability to perform critical repairs and refuel backup generators – often during the time that this infrastructure is most crucial.

“It is evident that on numerous occasions during the last season, UHF CB proved to be invaluable to brigades when they found that they had lost all other means of communication”

Parlimentry House Committee – Bushfires Inquiry Report 2003 – Annex F

Social Media has also become a crucial tool for communicating highly dynamic fireground situations to the general public, both for public safety and public relations purposes. The positive impact that social media has had on the various fire services’ ability to quickly and accurately convey information to the general public cannot be understated – it is by far the most effective tool for mass communication in affected areas. Despite this plethora of advantages, the fact remains that internet services are reliant on commercial telecommunications infrastructure. This infrastructure depends on the availability of reliable electrical power, which is more often than not one of the first services to be interrupted by fire.

Whilst most telecommunications facilities have provisions for backup power, this is usually in the form of battery backups which are usually only designed for a run time of 8-12 hours – most standalone telecommunications base stations (which do not form part of a larger backhaul network) are not fitted with permanent backup generators.

The vulnerability of public mobile telephone services has been especially highlighted in the service interruptions during the recent New South Wales/Northern Victoran megafire, where all telecommunications services, including mobile phone coverage, were interrupted between Nowra and Moruya.

“We do advise customers that their NBN service will not work in a power outage, and it is always wise to keep mobile devices charged in the event of an emergency.”

NBN Spokesperson in response to questions by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

Users relying on the National Broadband Network for emergency information were also impacted. NBN coverage in regional areas is usually provided by fixed wireless, which is vulnerable to disruption for the same reasons as other commercial wireless providers.

The vulnerability of commercial telecommunications services further highlights the valuable role UHF CB has to play in delivering better public safety outcomes though appropriate use of UHF CB radio systems.

Nobody Else Listens

Another oft-overlooked disadvantage of the ongoing consolidation of statewide radio networks is the ongoing migration of legacy conventional analog networks to new trunked digital networks. Next generaton networks have increased capacity for value added services (such as GPS tracking, distress/man down alarms, lone worker facilities etc). Despite this, there is little to no ability for non-network users to listen to transmissions on these networks – especially when the traffic on those networks is encrypted.

Many next generation radio networks (such as Queensland’s Government Wireless Network) are end to end encrypted, ensuring that only those with government-issued radio devices can listen to radio traffic on the network. Whilst this is a siginificant advantage for law enforcement and ambulance operators who have notable privacy obligations, there is a small but not negligible community of landowners, rural fire volunteers and other relevant parties who previously relied on commercially available radio reciever equipment (known as “radio scanners”) as part of their situational awareness capabilities. In most jurisdictions, these radio scanners can no longer recieve the radio traffic on these consolidated radio networks due to the aforementioned encryption.

“Whilst social media is being used more readily, the use of UHF CB radios is being abandoned by the NSW RFS. CB radios have been used extensively to keep the locals well informed but these people cannot easily listen into the digital NSW RFS radio networks.”

Volunteer Fighterfighters Australia Magazine – Winter 2016 Edition
Radio scanners cannot recieve encrypted radio transmissions

The democratic nature of the UHF CB service also has another significant adantage – situational awareness. Recent years has seen the predominance of Australian rural fire services move to state-wide consolidated radio networks such as Queensland’s Government Wireless Network or New South Wales’ Goverment Radio Network. Whilst the consolidation of these networks provides substantial advantages for interdepartmental operability and ensures that all rural fire units are meeting an acceptable minimum standard for radiocommunication systems, units working along state borders are often required to carry multiple sets of radios to ensure ongoing communication between units based on either side of state borders.

UHF CB radios do not support encryption, so radio scanners (and other battery powered devices such as handheld UHF radios) are a valuable resource for the general public to stay aware of fire conditions in real-time, as it impacts their community. Various organizations and researchers have identified this as a substantial advantage of UHF CB, with the Partimentary House Committee specifically mentioning UHF CB in Annex F of the 2003 Bushfire Inquiry Report.

“It proved to be critical as a means of alerting the community to the situation by either direct communication or use of the facility by landholders as a listening device.”

Parlimentry House Committee – Bushfires Inquiry Report (2003) – Annex F

Extensive Adoption by Rural Fire Services

The Queensland Rural Fire Service in particular has invested significantly in UHF CB radios and infrastructure. All Queensland RFS appliances and units have multiple UHF CB radios as part of their deployment kits, as well as mobile radios installed in their appliances. Additionally, Queensland Fire and Emergency Service operate an impressive 76 UHF CB repeaters across the greater Queensland area – this number represents 7.9% of all UHF CB repeaters (including non-emergency repeaters) licenced in Australia.

Whilst not as extensive as Queensland, a number of other state fire jurisdictions also operate UHF CB repeaters:

StateServiceNumber of Repeaters
QueenslandRural Fire Service76
New South WalesRural Fire Service9
VictoriaCountry Fire Service0
South AustraliaCountry Fire Service4
Northern TerritoryBush Fire Brigade0
Western AustraliaBush Fire Brigade 0
TasmaniaState Fire Commission1

It should be noted that in some jurisdictions and locations, individual units, rather than the state fire body itself are responsible for licencing, maintaining and operating UHF CB repeaters. These licencees are not captured in the above table, so the numbers of repeaters operated by rural fire departments is likely far higher than what is listed in this table. For an extensive, searchable list of all licenced UHF CB repeaters, please see cbreference’s UHF CB repeater list, or UHF CB repeater map.

Volunteer Emergency Monitors

In addition to the extensive use of UHF CB by rural firefighters, there are a number of volunteer emergency radio operators who monitor radiocommunications for distress calls, especially on UHF channels 5 and 35. These stations operate either independently, or as part of a formal volunteer monitoring organization such as CREST (Citizens Radio Emergency Service Team) or ACREM (Australian Citizens Radio Emergency Monitors).

These individuals and organizations relay emergency calls to emergency services and provide up-to-date information to other stations on the network, freeing up RFS resources for more important activities and providing another form of emergency communication for the general public.

Summary

The contributions that UHF CB makes to public safety both on and around the fireground are widespread and notable. The interoperable, democratic nature of public radio spectrum has and continues to be one of the most valuable communication assets at the disposal of rural fire services – not just for firefighters themselves, but also for the general public.

Better public education of the value and usage of UHF CB radio systems would help to create deeper penetration of radiocommunication systems into vulnerable communities, reducing their dependance on unreliable public telecommunications infrastructure and providing better situational awareness of increasingly dynamic bushfire threats.

Queensland’s heavy investment and adoption of UHF CB systems is a testament to its capability as an effective and reliable fireground communication tool and provides a prime example of what can be achieved when an organizational-wide buy-in and appreciation for this incredibly valuable resource.

The future is looking brighter, both for UHF CB and the communities which it helps to protect.

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