Communication Blog

March 2015 - Battery Maintenance

Communications and other Incident Response equipment needs regular maintenance and verification of operational readiness. Leaving equipment in the closet or truck for years on end and then expecting rechargeable batteries and subscription based communication equipment is a recipe for disappointment when an actual disaster arrives.
Rechargeable Battery Maintenance
STACS systems and most other modern equipment rely on some form of Lithium based batteries. These batteries can provide years of reliable service when maintained correctly, or fail in days if abused.
Batteries: Lithium Ion / Lithium Polymer
Lithium Ion and Lithium Polymer batteries provide extremely high energy storage in a small, light weight package. Unfortunately they also require careful maintenance to maintain their capacity and avoid catastrophic failure. Failure Modes for Lithium Ion / LIPO
  • Over Discharge - all devices with these batteries should have electronic controls that turn the device off when a minimum charge level is detected on the battery. However, these circuits draw a very small amount of power from the battery even when the device is turned off, and the battery itself discharges slowly. These small drains will discharge the battery below the safe minimum if a completely discharged battery is not charged promptly after use. Storing devices with discharged batteries is the most common cause of battery failure.
  • Over Charge - similarly to over-discharge, all devices should employ circuits to automatically limit the charging of the battery. Many of these circuits use a combination of a maximum battery voltage combined with a minimum charge current to terminate the charging process. Unfortunately, the safe voltage for a battery varies widely with temperature. Unless you are sure that the charger is temperature compensated, batteries should only be charged at moderate ambient temperature. The STACS system has a fully temperature compensated charger and can be charged over the entire range of temperatures allowed by the battery chemistry. Charging still cannot be done above 50 degrees Celsius or below 0 degrees Celsius, in which case the charger will automatically stop charging the battery until the temperature returns to the acceptable range.
  • Physical Damage - batteries that have been punctured, crushed or have swelled are extremely dangerous and should immediately be removed from service, transported in a fireproof container and disposed of safely. These batteries can spontaneously combust and burn at temperatures of over 500 degrees Celsius (>1000 degrees F) and cannot be put out using most common fire extinguishers, water or even most Halon systems.
  • Improper Storage - Batteries should be stored at between 20% and 80% charge. Deeply discharged and fully charged batteries put additional strain on the electrode materials in the batteries and lead to reduced battery life. Storage at 50-60% charge is ideal for prolonging the lifespan of batteries. Storage at extreme temperatures also reduces the lifespan of batteries, store batteries at as close to room temperature as possible and avoid storage below freezing or at temperatures over 40 degrees Celsius.

More on batteries in the next instalment

February 2015 - Things to look for in a communications system 

Contingency communications systems are one of the most difficult pieces of equipment to select.   Most systems are purchased from grant money with limited requirements analysis and insufficient planning for long-term operating systems and technology advances.

While requirement analysis and product selection has to be done considering the individual needs of the agency, there are some common considerations all agencies should use.

Choose a product based on referrals from similar agencies, not checklist functionality
Purchasing contingency communications equipment based on requirement checklists and low prices too often results in disappointment when the system is used in the field.  Designing products that work properly under the best conditions is easy, creating systems that operate reliably under real-work conditions is much less common.  Products operated by engineers during demonstrations or field exercises don't provide the insights acquired during real-work use of the system by other agencies.  Talking to other agencies also provides valuable information on how a vendor will support your agency after the sale.

Select equipment you can use on a regular basis
Staff need to be familiar with the operational procedures associated with the equipment.  When disaster strikes there will be enough to keep staff busy without trying to figure out how to operate an unfamiliar piece of equipment.

Rapid deployment is critical
During the "Golden Hour" of incident deployment you need to maximize the operational efficiency of your staff.  Time spent setting up communications equipment, or waiting for communications to come online is wasted time.  VSAT systems provide inexpensive and high speed satellite back haul, but can be difficult and time consuming to get setup and operational.

Choose a reliable vendor with solid industry partnerships
Many contingency communication systems depend on infrastructure provided by the vendor, and on more than one occasion, expensive communication systems have been rendered inoperative when a vendor goes out of business.  Consider how long the company has been providing communications systems and has industry partners who will stand behind a potentially expensive system.

February 2015 - ROIP More than bridging

Radio bridging has historically been used to connect incompatible radio systems and multi-agency incidents when they are used at all.  The complexity of setting up and operating radio bridging systems has resulted in much of the available hardware sitting idle or worse yet, sitting in a storage closet.  Using cloud infrastructure, the STACS™ ROIP system can be deployed and configured in the field by untrained personnel without expertise in radio communications or computer networking. 

Once operational, the ROIP bridges can be accessed (with appropriate username and password) from anywhere in the world an internet connection is available.  Software clients for Windows™ and Android™ are provided free of charge with each STACS™ ROIP system and can be deployed throughout organizations at no additional cost.

One major STACS™ customer provides each of their first responders and all leadership staff with a USB memory key with a preconfigured ROIP client for Windows based computers.  Staff can participate directly in responding to an incident from any available computer or Android smartphone.  Leadership staff can travel secure in the knowledge that if a major incident flares up, they can be in direct contact with incident command and any first responders in the field with a push-to-talk communications link.

Mayors, Governors can monitor radio communications, and a link to a downloadable version of the ROIP client can be provided to Federal officials or remote experts allowing agencies to integrate remote personnel into their incident communications network in minutes.  Authentication credentials can be created in minutes and then removed at the conclusion of the incident.