Sunday, July 1, 2012

Portable Radios: A Sarcastic History

I have seen an evolution in portable radios which goes from the Paleozoic to Bill Gates.  One of the first portable radios I ever used was a single channel RCA model about the size of a squished loaf of bread, but weighing considerably more.    Unless you had hands the size of a linebacker, it took two to actually use the thing; one to hold it and the other to key the transmit button.  The next generation was a four channel Motorola, two of which we didn’t need, slightly bigger than a brick and about the same weight.   They were damn good radios that took a licking and kept on ticking.  Extension microphones came next which put the most important parts of the radio on your collar, the speaker and the mic itself.  All you had to do is turn your head, mash the button on the side and talk. 

Initially, only Chiefs had portables, then company officers, and now everyone.  The rapid expansion in radio availability turned the fire ground from a nice quiet, pleasant place, into a cacophony of noise, squeals, screamers, and those that loved the sound of their own voice.  Eventually, most places establish communications policies that reined in the worst offenders, but you can still hear the white noise in some areas. 

Interoperability became the next buzz word, with the so called need to be able to talk to the world, and as the size of radios decreased, the channel capacity increased until the hundred channel radio became ubiquitous.  Most of these units would live, die, and be replaced with the next latest and greatest model without ever having used more than ten percent of the channels they contained, but it was critical to have the secondary fire police channel of some department three counties away that you had never, in the history of the department, ever run with. 

Now the radios will talk to you, Siri-like, although they won’t answer questions –yet, or tell you where to get a good pizza on the way back to the station (hint, hint Mr. Motorola—just kidding).  The radio lady, Sophie I’ll call her, tells you what channel you’re on.  Good thing, cause it’s not like I can remember who or what is on channel 63. 

The extension mics have started to grow also, and now are almost as big as the radios they are attached to.  Speaker and mic button aren’t enough now; volume controls and a mayday alert, all of which supposedly can be worked by gloved hands in the dark.  Good luck.  Makes me wonder why we need the extension mics anymore—just attach the radio to the collar.

Technology is a wonderful thing, but the complexity has reached the level that I pine for the days when you didn’t need an electrical engineering degree to use a portable.   Maybe, just maybe,  RCA will start making radios again. 

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