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Portable Communications

One of the primary needs for the hazardous materials responder from the emergency or industrial side is a portable communication device. Both may have different primary needs but both have limited access depending on which communication technology they subscribe to. While both emergency and industrial haz-mat responders have a commonality, the response genres they operate in are restricted from each others’ options. Industry, Police, Fire, and Emergency Management representatives are frequently not afforded “inter-connectivity” without elaborate programming, when it applies to portable communications.

Emergency Responders (Police/Fire) have the capability of newer 800 MHz radio communications. This option enables responders on-site to a large variety of options. However, the fact that these radios are not receiving great popularity from this community demonstrates their liabilities. The more diverse a communication device is generally increases its difficulty of operation. The portable radio emergency programmable or “PREP” should be user friendly. Let’s face it; some of these devices require the devotion of a hobby, to use the features needed on a hazardous materials incident. The ability to problem-solve on-site quickly may become over whelming with the end result of inoperability, frustration, and lack of use the norm for responders. This is an unreasonable safety risk.

Industrial Responders have the same hazardous materials needs, but not the same options as Police and Fire. They enjoy even less “inter-connectivity” as governmental authorities do. While both groups have the options of cell-phone communications with their home base, there are additional challenges in remote locations away from some cellular “reach” depending on your carrier. Additionally, with lowered manpower, you still have to have someone “there” on the other end of the phone line to give you the needed information. With industrial Teams also feeling the manpower crunch, they are finding themselves more and more isolated and “on-their-own” for crucial on-site information when responding to, and working on hazardous materials sites. This of course, is undesirable and increases danger to both sets of responders.

With limitations on both industry and emergency responders, the quest becomes a search for a programmable device that supplies the needed information, be independent of a human support staff 24/7, and be relatively easy to operate in the field by all team members. No service cell phones, difficult radios, limited 24/7 staff contact, all equate to the same outcome. Responders may not get the safety information they need while on-site. One of the crucial reports needed on many hazardous materials incidents is that of “changing weather”. While municipal responders have options, often these require questionable staffing and off-site manning, or the presence of a police officer with an Internet connected squad car computer throughout the incident. So, even these systems become limited in the worst case scenario.

One functional solution, a programmable (prep) that “gives” changing conditions information, without requiring the responder to interrupt operations to request this “changing” status. Enter the VHF (prep). This device is centered on the concept of receiving data, rather than the need to stop and request data. This core difference makes user interoperability for a hazardous materials response much more functional when dressed-out in CPC. Let’s look at the features of the VHF that I feel are most useful to the hazardous materials responder.

1] The VHF uses S.A.M.E. (Specific Area Message Encoding) for weather alerts and Coast Guard communication. The key here is that wherever you activate this (prep), you receive the weather report closest to your geographical location. This technology automatically locks in on the nearest NOAA (National Oceanographic and Air Administration) 24/7 weather broadcast. You simply listen and receive your needed data. This feature is critical for time operations when working with water reactive chemicals or other dangerous compounded materials!

2] The VHF has integrated GPS systems via DSC (Digital Select Calling is a standard for sending pre-defined digital messages via the medium frequency (MF), high frequency (HF) and very high frequency (VHF) maritime radio systems. It is a core part of the Global Maritime Distress Safety System (GMDSS).[1]) that can send an emergency message containing all your pre-set Team information immediately to the Coast Guard and any boat in the neighborhood with like systems. Drawbacks with this feature drain batteries over longer operational periods. Not only could this be life-saving in the advent of working on a water-way hazardous material spill, but you can also communicate person-to-person between any VHF prep (see 7 LMR), when involved with a larger incident involving a multitude of response groups.

3] The VHF is in most cases submersible and waterproof for extended times. This becomes very important both on the water and when in CPC operating with liquid spills. Surprisingly, many police/fire preps still have issue with the waterproof problem. This is a large hindrance involving practical operations in inclement weather, or for extended periods of operation for both groups.

4] The VHF “batteries” have a multitude of types compared to police/fire preps. In addition to the Li-ion rechargeable unit, VHF has the capability of portable charging without a bulky console being added to vehicles. Combating the drawback in the statements of 2], VHF preps have the versatility of replaceable alkaline batteries via a separate pack that can be switched whenever re-charging is inaccessible. Police/Fire preps commonly do not have this feature.

5] The VHF “cost” is considerably lower per unit than police/fire preps. The standard cost per unit is below $300.00USD per unit. Police/Fire preps begin at or above $1000.00USD per unit. This is an obvious “minimal” advantage of three to one units in the same expenditure! This feature appeals to all fiscal concerns.

6] The VHF “floats”, Police/Fire preps do not.

7] While the VHF is considered a marine band use device; newer models now have the capability of Land Mobile Radio (LMR) communication channels for land and mobile nearby communications. With the addition of a single prep, the Industrial Hazardous Materials Responder could speak with local or State authorities on a more complex incident.

These seven (7) features are critical to hazardous materials operations. Working as a contractor, this personal purchase enhances safety on all my sites. Innovation within your group by implementing these products will improve your communication safety. For more detailed information on the VHF world, contact your local representative at West Marine. They can be reached at

                                       Haz Mat Mike     

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