Portable Radio Communications on the Fireground

Issue 7 and Volume 7.

The fireground has evolved dramatically over the last two decades. We’ve witnessed improvements in personal protective equipment (PPE) that permit us to operate in hotter environments, and this, in turn, has led to more aggressive interior fire attack. This has also spawned the introduction of new equipment that can impact fireground communications.

The modern fire scene has evolved into a much louder environment than in days past. Gas-driven ventilation fans, rotary saws, air chisels, PASS devices and low-air alarms, as well as louder sirens and pumps, can seriously challenge our ability to effectively communicate on the fireground. As such, in an effort to improve portable radio communications, the IAFC, in conjunction with radio manufacturers and fire departments, released “Portable Radio Best Practices” in 2008. The document outlines a variety of ways firefighters can significantly improve communications on the fireground. The adoption of these recommendations can result in major improvements in audio quality and effective communications. In this article, we’ll approach this topic from three angles: technology, testing and training.

Today’s mission-critical handheld radios are more along the lines of concert stereo equipment that’s been designed for firefighters. The audio on these devices can be adjusted with settings for treble and automatic gain control. Some manufacturers have implemented noise-cancellation algorithms that detect specific background noises or the squeal of audio feedback and can actually remove it from the radio transmissions. Newer radios include multiple microphones that increase performance to the point where the operator can talk into either side of a radio without any reduction in audio quality.

Choosing a radio that incorporates these features may dramatically improve your fireground audio transmissions; however, it can be difficult to keep up with cutting-edge technology releases, not to mention obtaining the required funding to acquire new equipment, upgrade existing equipment or purchase additional (but often necessary) options. With this in mind, there are several ways you can improve fireground (and all) communications in a cost-effective way.

Ruggedness: Don’t pass on ruggedness. Some radios can last a decade or more, but selecting a radio that isn’t tough enough for your environment could set your teams up for failure. This is especially true in firefighting, where operations are mainly conducted in water-laden environments. Seek out the designs that go above and beyond defense military (MIL) standards for weatherproofing or submersion. Some manufacturers have radio offerings that have more stringent specifications than the current ruggedness standards. Also keep in mind that although there are many aftermarket radio accessories, they could become the weak link in your communications system. It should therefore be a priority to ensure that all components in the communication solution—the radio itself, the battery and any attached accessories—are certified to meet the same ruggedness specifications.

Accessories: The IAFC’s best practices recommend that, “When practical, consider the use of accessories, such as speaker microphones, throat microphones, and in-ear microphones, to reduce the impact of background noise.” When used appropriately, audio accessories like these can significantly improve audio on the fireground.

You need to decide which features the majority of your firefighters would like to have on the microphone itself. Some of these ruggedized microphones now incorporate channel selectors, volume adjustments, emergency alert buttons (EAB) and even digital displays. They have, in essence, become a remote-control to the actual radio worn at the user’s side. One thing to keep in mind: Be selective about choosing options and buttons you add to the exposed microphone in order to minimize the chances of inadvertent activation.

Exposure to background noise is usually the prime culprit when it comes to audio interference. Certain accessories are designed to filter and shield users from these noises. Bone-conduction devices, such as in-ear, throat and temple microphones, conduct sound to the inner ear through the bones of the skull. They are commonly used in confined space, hazmat and other technical rescue applications. The drawback to these alternatives is that they may prevent the full protective facepiece seal required in an environment that’s immediately dangerous to life or health (IDLH). As such, when considering using any of these options, they should be implemented with a strict donning procedure that’s practiced regularly.

Remote-Speaker Microphones: A remote speaker microphone (RSM) seems to be the most commonly used radio accessory in the fire service, and there are many variations in RSM design to choose from. With so many options, it’s important to limit your choices to only those that have weatherproofing, protect from wind and driving rain, and can experience momentary full submersion in water.
The latest RSM technology integrates noise-cancellation and dual-microphone technology directly into the microphone itself. This enhancement usually improves radio transmissions regardless of your system type. Manufacturers have also increased resistance of controls (tactility) to reduce inadvertent transmissions and emergency button activations. Selecting the proper microphone that includes a few of these enhancements may offer the solutions to help resolve past communications issues.

Facepiece Options: Regardless of your SCBA manufacturer, chances are they have incorporated voice ports and/or voice-amplification options into the facepiece. These options allow the user to get away from the muffled voices we’ve become accustomed to while using our SCBA. Because audio accessories like RSMs rely on good audio quality, these options should not be overlooked. Voice ports are usually simple diaphragms that are integrated into the facepiece itself. This allows your voice to be heard more clearly by other personnel but does not affect the seal of the mask. Voice-amplification devices improve your communications even more by raising your volume level for those in your immediate surroundings.  

Taking it a step further, some SCBA facepiece manufacturers have started offering equipment that interfaces with the portable radio either via a cable or, in some cases, wireless technology. The pros in choosing a wireless mask interface include improved audio quality and reduction of snag hazards associated with the additional wires and cable exposed on the exterior of the firefighting ensemble. The cons are primarily increased cost, increased training and the logistics required for charging and replacement of the battery.

A system needs to be in place to ensure that a firefighter’s communications equipment won’t be compromised if a wireless device battery runs low.

The most prevalent wireless voice amplifier pairs the earpiece or voice amplifier with an RSM. The RSM also functions as the means of transmitting. In other words, when the firefighter presses the push-to-talk (PTT) button on the RSM, it uses the audio from the voice amplifier (if paired). Redundancies like these can allow agencies to implement advanced technologies, but only if the end users are willing to embrace increased training and logistics.  

Once it’s been determined which communications solution(s) will be best for your department, there are still two big questions: 1) Does it work? and 2) Are our personnel proficient in operating the equipment?

There are literally hundreds of portable radio configurations that you could choose to deploy in your department, but before buying a radio solution, test a small subset. Once you get them in your hands, pull out all the generators, turn on all your saws, pack a few guys up and run some audio testing. Take a trip to the nearest burn building at the fire academy. Get the radios wet. Operate them in smoke, heat or while crawling. It’s critical that you put your solution through the ringer so you know what you’re getting before it’s out in your firefighters’ hands.

Remember: It’s not only important to test whether you can hear what your personnel are saying but also to ensure that they can hear what you’re saying to them. Volume levels are extremely important when it pertains to what the speaker puts out. Test the audio and rank it for both transmission and reception quality. Only move to the next step in the purchasing process when you’re satisfied with what you hear.

When you buy a new apparatus, you don’t simply hand the keys over to the firefighters and say “Have at it!” Familiarization is key when it comes to using equipment properly, especially in the fast-paced and extreme environment of interior firefighting. After all, when you’re in a high-stress environment, you won’t have all your fine-motor skills. To achieve successful implementation, it’s critical to routinely practice the steps ahead of time so that they become rote.

No matter which type of radio system your jurisdiction uses, it’s important to remember the following rule: More Voice In = Better Audio Out. Whether your radios are in the analog or digital mode, the closer you can get your mouth to the microphone and the louder you can speak, the more intelligible your communication will be for the person on the receive side.

Get your users in the habit of positioning the microphone at least one to two inches away from their mouth, or, if wearing a mask, the voice port or voice amplifier. Removing and re-attaching the RSM from your gear is a nuisance, but with the development of a rugged, retractable cord, such as those manufactured by GearKeeper, this is no longer an issue. RSMs can be easily positioned near the mask when needed, and when you’re done, it retracts back to your shoulder. This is a simple and cost-effective solution that you could probably utilize with the devices you’re using today.  

Proper shielding from noise can also aid in communications improvements. Simply blocking the interference from getting to the microphone can make a difference. Turn your back to the noise source; if possible, move away. If it’s your PASS device or low-air alarm that’s sounding, move the microphone to the opposite side. If you have a free hand, shield the microphone from loud noises. Protecting your device from rain and other water sources when possible will also aid in successful transmissions. Be careful when using an RSM with a mask-mounted voice amplifier. The extreme loudness of the amplifier can distort the voice and lead to ineffective radio transmissions. The only solution to this is proper training on how far away to hold the microphone.

Try these techniques by implementing them in every drill you have. After all, communications are needed on every type of call. Without practice, the likelihood of experiencing problems drastically increases.

Final Thoughts
Enhancing communications for your firefighters is no simple task. But with patience, investigation and the implementation of some new tools and tactics outlined here, you could make the difference between loud and clear audio vs. unintelligible transmissions coming through your radio. This will help ensure that when it comes time to get your job done, your radio transmissions will be the best in the moments that matter.

To view the full list of IAFC best practices, visit www.iafc.org. Additionally, Motorola Solutions produced a video in conjunction with the IAFC to demonstrate best practices. Check it out at www.motorola.com/SayItLoud.