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9 May, 2011 - 10:19 By News Desk

Radio technology might have saved lives in London bombings

Members of the special search and rescue team with the FRW-1 portable radio repeater getting ready to go carry out trials in a 400m deep road tunnel through mountains in Taiwan.

Radio communications technology that stops communications from breaking down in underground tunnels and concrete bunkers has been developed by a Suffolk company.

Fern Communications Ltd says its technology would have countered the failure of emergency responders’ radios on the Underground during the July 2005 London bombings.

Its all-weather FRW-1 Portable Radio Repeater significantly improved radio communications for the Special Search and Rescue Team (SSRT) during a series of recent trials in Taiwan.

Fern claims the lightweight, waterproof FRW-1 dramatically increases radio coverage by eliminating radio blackspots that wreak havoc with radio signals, interrupting the flow of vital radio communications. The system extends radio transmission range by ‘bending’ the radio signal around solid structures.

Fern provides two-way radio communications systems to the international emergency services and upstream oil & gas industries. During the past four years the company’s FRX-1 and FRW-1 Portable Radio Repeaters have dramatically improved radio communications in subsea corridors, mountain road tunnels, high rise buildings, power plants, oil platforms and refineries.

Every rescue worker is acutely aware of how critical it is to maintain radio communications with co-workers whether fighting a fire or responding to an emergency. Breakdown in communications can mean the difference between life and death.

When Bruce Lan, MD for safety equipment specialist VAN Protecteur Co Ltd, brought the radio repeater and its ability to enhance radio communications to the attention of the SSRT in Taichung, Taiwan, they were keen to test it for themselves.

Fern responded by conducting a two-phase set of trials with the FRW-1 in cooperation with the SSRT. Travelling by helicopter, the first trial took place in a 400m deep road tunnel through the mountains near the Central Mountain Range in Taichung.

First, the SSRT activated their existing radio equipment. One walked through the winding tunnel while communicating with the other rescue worker who remained at the entrance of the tunnel.

Within just 20 metres, the radio signal was lost. They repeated the exercise with the FRW-1 switched on and placed the unit at 200m into the tunnel. The rescue workers never lost the radio signal, even when they were 400 metres apart and communicating through cement and solid earth.

It was a first. Neither had ever managed to maintain continuous radio contact while underground in a road tunnel.

Because the SSRT often responds to emergencies in high rise office buildings, they carried out the second phase of trials in number of 20 story buildings in Taipe. With one SSRT member located outside of the building near the entrance, the second member made his way on foot from the first floor to the second floor.

When the two were separated by about 20 metres, they lost radio contact. Repeating the exercise, but with the FRW-1 operating, the first rescue worker was able to travel all the way to the 10th floor before losing contact. But by moving the FRW-1 up a few floors, communication reached the top floor. Again, it was the first time that they had ever managed to maintain unbroken radio contact in a high rise building.

The trials convinced the SSRT to buy 13 units, making them a standard feature of their communications system. Fern will provide onsite training in maintenance for the SSRT in Taiwan later this year.

Fern says the radios can also be adapted for those carrying out disaster relief efforts. The company can supply an emergency communication pack that contains upwards of six radios and one FRW-1. In the event of a disaster of any kind – flooding, fire, crashes, or storms – the pack can be set up immediately to serve as a mobile command and control centre, making response times that much quicker.

The field trials carried out in Taiwan are the latest in a string of successful trials that have taken place with the FRW-1 and its sister system, the FRX-1.

During the past three years, Fern’s radio repeaters have been bought by fire services organisations in the UK and Norway. They are also being used by energy services industry.

Companies in Louisiana have made them available to workers offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. Workers use them during planned shutdowns of power stations in the UK and in refineries throughout Norway.

Established in 2002 and based in Beccles, Fern Communications was co-founded by MD Jennifer Cushion, an Australian electronics engineer, and technical director Clive Cushion, a British industrial product designer.

With a strong customer base in the United Kingdom, Fern Communications also exports its systems worldwide to oil services companies in the United States, Kazakhstan, Iran, Sweden, The Netherlands, Nigeria, Angola, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Ukraine, Poland, Brunei and Hong Kong, among others.

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