Langley Township fire chief Stephen Gamble with one of the new, upgraded radios local firefighters have been using. (Matthew Claxton/Langley Advance)

New radios, new rules, mean better safety for firefighters

Langley Township has upgraded its radio gear, and the way it builds large structures.

Langley Township firefighters and civic officials are working to overcome an unusual problem – some new buildings are so energy efficient, they block fire department radio signals.

In May last year, the Township Fire Department upgraded its hand-held radio system to be more efficient and useful.

“There’s more technology in here than there was in the space shuttle,” said assistant chief Monty Armstrong of the new units.

The radios are sturdy, fire resistant, have a long battery life and a sophisticated charging system.

More important, they allow firefighters to communicate on 16 channels instead of the old four. Firefighters can talk directly to police, ambulance, and neighbouring fire departments in Langley City and Surrey.

Before the new radios, communicating with police and BC Ambulance drivers about a crash would have involved routing the call through a dispatch centre. The new system allows faster communications, say Armstrong and chief Stephen Gamble.

“Now we can just switch our radios to that channel,” said Gamble.

However, all hand held radios can have problems in big buildings. Large concrete parking structures and high rises in particular were an issue.

The new radios can overcome some of that, but not everything. Some big concrete towers – like those planned for the near future in parts of Willoughby – could also be an issue.

One unusual issue is the way LEEDS certified buildings are constructed, said Gamble.

“It’s designed to keep the building super-energy efficient,” Gamble said. “It also keeps out radio waves.”

A small LEEDs building – like a house – usually isn’t going to block signals. But larger multi-family or office structures could be an issue.

The Township has moved forward with a plan to prevent any problems in the future.

“Council was actually really forward thinking,” said Armstrong.

In 2017, the Township passed a bylaw requiring radio amplification systems in buildings with a large amount of steel, concrete, or reflective glass.

“In the end, it’s cheaper for the developers,” said Gamble. “It’s a lot easier during building it, then to come in and do it after.”

The new equipment plus the associated regulations mean firefighters don’t have to worry about being out of touch with one another or with their commanders while entering a building to fight a fire.

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