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Is It time to re-think two-way radios?

New research into the state of analogue radio communication in the UK suggests an upgrade to digital is overdue.

Many facilities managers report that their analogue two-way radio systems are not up to scratch, and lack health and safety features that protect people. With many employees working in remote areas or across different locations, the ability to communicate clearly and consistently is business critical. Yet it seems that radio networks are stuck in the Dark Ages. 

FMs have often turned to mobile phones to supplement their communications. However, with many phone users operating in areas where mobile coverage is weak, or being distracted by smartphone features, even this backup would fail a simple risk assessment.

If FMs are to have confidence in their radio communications, then an upgrade is required. FMJ and Hytera UK carried out a survey of facilities managers across the UK to identify the communication weaknesses faced by FMs and how to address them. In particular, it looks at next-generation two-way radio systems and their potential to boost productivity, manage challenges and deliver instant and reliable communications with improved safety.

Running the risk
Many respondents were worried about the risk of communications not being received and the consequences for health and safety. The survey found that ageing and inefficient two-way radio systems are being used in a traditional radio-to-radio manner, which means they are not exploited to their full potential.

Issues reported by respondents could easily be resolved by an upgrade to digital radio. Over 40 per cent claimed that they suffered from blackspots and nearly 45 per cent said their radio batteries were failing on shift.

Blackspots are relatively common with older systems, especially on complex sites where, for instance, there may be concrete walls or employees are operating across several floors. Equally, analogue radio-to-radio networks suffer from poor sound quality, which means that crucial communications can sometimes be misunderstood or not heard fully. A site coverage report followed by the implementation of a digital mobile radio (DMR) system with appropriately positioned repeaters would resolve these issues, especially as the latest handsets offer battery life that easily outlasts a shift.

A simple way to improve communications over a localised area might be the addition of a repeater and a dispatcher. Migrating from analogue to digital doubles the available talkpaths, as DMR splits a single analogue channel into two independent talkpaths. But more importantly, digital incorporates audio processing techniques such as noise cancellation and forward error correction, making it possible to receive intelligible signals in challenging environments.

Over one in four respondents reported that their handsets were not robust enough to cope with workplace demands. But rugged radios are available that can cope with multiple impacts and water submersion, which means they are well able to handle the rough and tumble of the workplace. IP ratings and military (Mil) standards are a good guide to the ruggedness of a device.

Safety features under used
The survey suggests that many users are not making best use of available safety features. Of those surveyed, only 23 per cent reported that their handsets incorporated the ‘Man Down’ feature, while a third (33 per cent) said they had ‘Lone Worker’ functionality. These options are readily available in professional two-way radios and ensure that employees are protected in hazardous or isolated environments, alerting colleagues and sending emergency calls if there has been a fall or no-response.

FMs do value the important priority communications channels offered by two-way radios, ideal for instantly contacting groups with an urgent message. But less than 10 per cent were taking advantage of GPS, which would unlock a number of safety and location-based features for FMs to exploit across single or multiple sites.

The picture is one of a workforce carrying the tool for the job, but not using it. The risk is compounded by the transient and often isolated nature of many job roles, especially around large sites or campuses. Yet the safety features described above are commonplace in professional two-way radios and simple to implement.

Adding a dispatcher application allows for more efficient management of communications and enhances health and safety. A dispatcher allows both voice and data services to be managed, keeping track of the location of all users and providing instant awareness of emergency situations through emergency calls and Lone Worker or Man Down alerts. It would also be possible to record calls to ensure all communications are logged for future reference.

Mobile phones as backup
The survey highlighted the surprising fact that as many as 86 per cent of respondents were using mobile phones in addition to two-way radios. Mobile phones are used as backup to address the battery, coverage and transmission problems associated with dated radio systems. This duplication of effort and cost should be unnecessary with modern handsets.
Most respondents using mobile phones admitted that they had areas on their site where mobile coverage is liable to drop out. This underlines the double whammy that facilities managers are facing – two-way radios that aren’t meeting their requirements, and mobile phones that can’t be relied upon. If neither can be trusted 100 per cent, it is clear that an upgrade is necessary.

In some cases, mobile phones are used because two-way radios are not seen as a viable solution across disparate sites. However, a modern two-way radio network can cover multiple sites over IP, offering improved reliability, reduced cost and all the advanced features of two-way radios – such as group calls.

The latest professional two-way radios are able to communicate with phones and company switchboards, patching calls through with ease while also supporting data services such as status updates and messaging. A properly managed radio implementation with the latest digital handsets should deliver a blackspot-free personal network, offering instant communications across the site without the ongoing monthly costs associated with phone contracts.

Progressive FMs are going one step further by adopting DMR Tier III systems with dispatching solutions. From shopping centres to business campuses, energy plants and manufacturing sites, anywhere a large volume of calls, advanced functionality, good staff organisation and accountability are required, a Tier III system will maximise the functionality of a two-way radio fleet. Tier III offers advanced features such as pre-emptive user rights, group calls and high-level security features such as encryption, ESN checking or authentication.

Benefits to the business
The report suggests that many FMs are currently not using radios to their full potential. A picture has emerged of a traditional approach towards radio usage, accepting flaws which should no longer be an issue with the latest two-way radio technology.

However, there are also signs of a desire to embrace a more modern, progressive deployment. FMs place high importance on increased connectivity across their networks. More than half of respondents (55 per cent) wanted to see increased connectivity to other communication systems, while 38 per cent wished for increased connectivity with other business systems.

Only 35 per cent of respondents saw no obstacles to upgrading, with cost and complexity being the two major hurdles in their ambition to scale up to a more modern system. In fact, the business benefits to be gained from an upgraded two-way radio system can far outweigh the investment in cost and time.

For example, the Shanghai Fairmont Peace Hotel was encountering significant customer service issues with its existing network. Staff were missing calls and were unable to trace them back. The result was that the response to customer requests was often late or non-existent. Hytera analysed the structure of the hotel and its departments, and provided a DMR solution that integrated with wireless communications, SMS and mail systems, enabling users to trace calls back and respond more quickly in both Chinese and English. With better audio quality and traceability, as well as integrated GPS, customer service improved as staff were able to respond more quickly to customer requests.

From analogue to digital
Outdated and inadequate analogue radio networks should be upgraded to improve efficiency and reduce the risk to people and the business. The process need not be complex; a simple audit of the site from an authorised radio dealer should be enough to resolve simple issues such as battery life or lack of coverage.

The second step would be to ensure that the system addresses FM responsibilities and health and safety priorities, which would include features such as Man Down and Lone Worker – helping to assure the safety of workers in remote, isolated or dangerous conditions.

Finally, it’s important to realise the potential business benefits of DMR. For example, with so many respondents saying they only use two-way radios for security or health and safety purposes, there is huge potential to use the technology across more teams to improve communications efficiency. FMs need to make the business case for next-generation handsets with their enhanced functionality before competitors get there first and gain a competitive edge.

Download Hytera’s white paper, ‘The unrealised potential of digital mobile radio’, at
https://hytera.co.uk/potential-of-dmr or visit the website at https://hytera.co.uk

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