How EMS And Other First Responders Improve Cell Phone Reception In Vehicles


For most Americans, poor cell phone reception and dropped calls are more of an annoyance than an issue of "life of death." However, for emergency service providers, including first responders such as EMS and fire department workers, having reliable cell phone coverage is more and more becoming a necessity. It seems that emergency service providers such as rural EMS and fire protection are increasingly moving away from conventional two-way radio systems and switching to cellular phone use, even in emergency situations. The reason for this is that cell phone companies can often provide first responders with a much more seamless communications network  than that of even the most expensive two - way radio network. In addition, ambulance companies, law enforcement officials and others are becoming increasingly more concerned about transmitting sensitive information over the airwaves. In many large metropolitan areas, emergency services have switched to using encrypted “trunking” radio systems which cannot be monitored  by persons with police scanners. However, in rural areas, emergency service providers in many small communities simply cannot afford these expensive secure two - way radio systems. They may still use conventional two-way radio systems for some communications, however for sensitive issues such as detective work, confidential patient information and other private matters, they may use regular cell phones.


Above: Some ambulance manufacturers are now offering cell phone amplifiers as an add - on feature for customers. 

How Do Emergency Service Providers Improve Cell Phone Reception In Dead Zones?

Unfortunately because of the fact that  first responders often work in rural and remote areas, there are many  cellular “dead spots” where calls cannot be made. One solution that can help in some instances is that of using cell phone boosters in emergency vehicles. Manufacturers such as Wilson Electronics offer units which can amplify the power of a hand-held cell phone, improving reception even in traditional “dead spots.”  This type of cell phone amplifier can now found in ambulances, police cars and even fire trucks. The typical “repeater” type cell phone amplifier used by most emergency service providers costs between $400 and $600 per vehicle. By comparison, a typical two-way radio system used in emergency vehicles can cost more than $2000. It is most likely that first responders will always rely on two-way radio systems as the backbone of emergency communications. The reason for this is simple. In a disaster situation, such as a hurricane or tornado, cell phone towers are often destroyed and two-way radios may still be able to make and receive calls. However,  cellular phones are increasingly becoming a vital tool for first responders, since they can be used for data transmission, including relaying a patient's vital signs in real-time to the receiving hospital. Firefighters working in the field may use a cellular data network, boosted by a cell phone amplifier, to connect a laptop to the web and view GIS maps of the area which show the location of things such as electrical power stations or other important features.

Private Industry Switching From Two Way Radio To Cellular

Private industry is also gradually switching from two-way radio systems to cellular phone use for everyday business communications.  There once was a time when private two-way radio systems were a cheaper alternative to cell phones, however that time has long since passed. Not only are conventional two-way radio systems now more expensive than cellular, they need a FCC license, which has to be renewed every few years at a substantial cost. The oil and gas industry is one segment of the private sector that is beginning to switch to using cell phones in place of two-way radio systems. However, there are many areas of the country where cell phone coverage is very poor or nonexistent, such as in the South Texas Oilfield. In these areas, some companies are turning to cell phone boosters to help with communications in fringe areas. For example,  an oil company may use cell phone boosters in trucks to help dispatchers keep in touch with field employees, as well as using group cell phone amplifiers in remote oil drilling rig locations so that workers can keep in touch with the outside world.

The Bottom Line, Do Cell Phone Amplifiers Help Increase Coverage?

Many emergency service providers report that cell phone amplifiers installed in their vehicles have greatly increased the coverage area in which they can keep in touch with first responders. Oftentimes, by using these mobile cellular amplifiers, communications could be established in areas where the agency's conventional two-way radio system experiences a “dead zone.”  However, many times the "dead zone" of an emergency provider's  radio system also coincides with cellular dead spots. In these cases, the only way that communications can be established is to use satellite phones. Presently, satellite phones are still very expensive and the cost per minute for calls is extremely high. At some point the cost of satellite phones made eventually fall to the point that all first responders will be able to carry them, however until that time comes, using a combination of conventional two-way radios and cell phones connected to boosters will have to suffice.