AFRRCS, the Alberta First Responders Radio Communications System, is “on the air”. In fact, it was pressed into service early in May to support efforts to fight the fire in Fort McMurray and played a pivotal role.
It has taken ten years and a lot of heavy lifting. But, Alberta now has a completely interoperable trunked radio system to be used by potentially all public safety organizations. Around 900 agencies can use the system simply by providing their own radio equipment and collaborating on operating procedures. The province provides and operates the network itself as a shared service.
AFRRCS replaces two old provincial networks used by government and RCMP which were at the end of their useful life. It also has the potential to replace literally hundreds of local, independent radio systems operated by individual public safety agencies across the province. The network uses frequencies in the 700 MHz range which where reallocated from television to public safety use. The network is digital voice and low bandwidth data.
Aside from replacing older radio systems, AFRRCS was motivated by two important trends. The first was the trend towards first responder interoperability, which was motivated following the dreadful situation during the 9/11 attacks in New York, when responders could not communicate or coordinate with each other. This problem was also realized in the Alberta context with situations such as the High River flood in 2005. From these realizations came new standards – both technical and behavioral – to support interoperable radio systems. You can read about the move towards interoperability in the Canadian context here, and in the broader context here.
The second trend is that of shared resources. Modern digital trunked networks for land mobile radio make it relatively simple for dozens or hundreds of agencies to share a network backbone while maintaining their local “virtual networks” or talk-groups. This allows shared towers and connectivity. What makes AFRRCS unique is that it covers an entire province. What makes AFRRCS value proposition work is that the province was going to pay for coverage anyway, as all of the different agencies are directly or indirectly funded by a single payer for their communications.
My role in creating AFRRCS
During 2006-2008, while working as a management consultant, I was retained by Alberta Solicitor General to facilitate the creation of AFRRCS. This involved two projects. The first was facilitating province-wide meetings with first responder and public safety agencies to create a common understanding of and agreement to use the radio network. This took about a year, and involved many town-hall meetings and discussions. The second project was creating the governance model which would be used to implement and then operate the network, and ensure a successful collaboration. You can read the updated governance documents in the Agency Handbook.
What made these projects both successful and enjoyable was that they were conducted with working groups of representative, dedicated first responders and public servants who stepped up and collaborated on making the system work. It’s been a ten year journey, but I am very satisfied to see AFRRCS go live in July.