By Matthew Busa
Published Friday, August 17, 2012
| From the September 2012 Issue of FireRescue
The portable handheld radio is widely becoming known as the “ticket to the fireground.” Why? Because many of the fire service’s governing agencies have started recommending that every firefighter who enters an IDLH environment be equipped with a tactical radio. As a result, this communications device is rapidly making its transition from a helpful tool to a required component of PPE worn by interior firefighters. Therefore, it’s that much more important to select rugged equipment when it comes time to refresh your agency’s cache of communications technology.
The rugged, tactical radio of today has much more to offer both your officers and firefighters than simple push-to-talk (PTT) technology. Enhanced radio features, such as GPS tracking, bio-monitoring systems, text message alerting, radio ergonomic enhancement options, advanced accessories and pairing technology, can provide significant improvements to your agency’s operations. If equipped appropriately, your radio can drastically increase the situational awareness of your incident commanders and frontline firefighters.
First Things First
Before purchasing any of the above-listed features, it’s important to first take a look at the infrastructure your radios will be integrated with. Many enhanced data applications require digital operation, which may be a significant change if you’re currently operating in analog mode. Some options may require that your radio be connected to a trunked system or operating in a direct communication mode. No matter which enhancements you’re considering integrating, compatibility is always key. Check which system and operating modes are required before making your enhancement purchases.
Regardless of your infrastructure type, there are still many enhancement options you can select when purchasing a new radio.
Ergonomic design offerings may provide the most benefit to your agency’s personnel. Some radio manufacturers have started designing radios tailored specifically for the harsh environments encountered by interior firefighters. Green and yellow housing options allow you to easily spot the device in the dark, especially if it’s been dropped or misplaced. Larger displays, as well as channel and volume selectors, allow responders with gloved hands to easily manipulate the radio settings on the fly. One manufacturer has actually made the emergency alert button (EAB) the size of a dime for simple activation purposes; however, the most important enhancement option you should consider is ruggedness. Limit your radio selections to only those that go above and beyond defense (MIL) standards. Choosing a rugged radio will increase your radio’s chances of surviving water-laden and extreme environments.
One of the main areas of improvement in radio technology involves audio quality. Noise cancellation algorithms, louder speakers and multiple microphone technologies have all transitioned the radio into a powerful acoustic tool. The communications devices of today can cancel out background noise that comes from everything from pump panels to chainsaws to PASS devices and ventilation fans, just to name a few.
More powerful speakers ensure that responders hear information and radio traffic in the loudest environments. Multiple microphone technology allows users to speak into any side of the device without losing transmitted audio quality. Choosing radios that employ this type of technology will significantly reduce the amount of audio issues you may be experiencing on the fireground.
Remote Speaker Microphones
In today’s world, accessories also play a big role in communications. Remote speaker microphones (RSMs) are often paired with the radio and tend to be responders’ main interface. Like the radios themselves, RSMs also have rugged, ergonomic, submersion and noise cancellation options that should not be overlooked. There are also certain features that are unique to RSM technology, including strobe lights. One radio manufacturer implemented a strobe into the RSM that’s activated when the radio goes into emergency mode. This helpful feature can provide an additional cue for rescuers and RIT teams trying to find a downed firefighter. It’s a simple feature that can make a world of difference in a smoke-filled and adrenaline-packed environment.
Global Positioning System Technology
Global positioning system (GPS) circuitry is integrated into most radios today. This technology can be beneficial for multiple reasons: First and foremost, it’s always helpful to know where to start looking when you have personnel in distress. Sending aid to someone’s last known location can be much easier if you have and use this feature. Sending the closest unit to a call can also be performed more rapidly when utilizing GPS. Your dispatchers can bypass the “polling” process and simply make a decision based off actual firefighter locations.
Aiding in logistics can be the deciding factor for purchasing GPS. You’ve invested a lot in both your personnel and equipment. Knowing where they are, especially to prevent loss, can be all the return necessary for opting for GPS implementation. Knowing your coordinates can also be an important aspect when establishing a landing zone for responding helicopters.
Providing your responders with the information they need is crucial for their survival, because it allows them to maintain situational awareness. To maintain a continuous exchange of information, it’s much easier if you can use the device they’re likely required to have with them at all times—the radio. Text messaging can continually provide discreet updates to your responders’ radios throughout an incident, providing everything from dispatch information to status updates as events unfold. Text messaging also provides an alternate information pathway for those times when radio channels need to be kept as clear as possible.
Lastly, today’s advanced radios can utilize wireless technology to pair with certain external systems and devices, such as bio-monitoring devices and other electronic equipment used on the fireground, so that the incident commander (IC) can receive information back and forth from each individual firefighting. Specifically, the IC now has the option of seeing things like heart rate, breathing rate, temperature, user orientation and outdoor location (GPS), all of which can be sent back to a central point for monitoring. As a result, the IC can maintain a much more heightened level of situational awareness for the overall incident.
Work & Train—Safely
Ensuring everyone goes home is the highest priority among anyone in the field today. Although the offerings I’ve discussed can aid communications and help watch over firefighters in the field, it’s important to always include regular testing and training on each system, regardless of the technology being deployed. Practice makes perfect, plus troubleshooting technology concerns isn’t something you want to be doing in the field. Establish frequent drills and implement communications as an important element of each drill scenario.
Every first responder should know 1) how to call a mayday, 2) perform a call for an evacuation and 3) general radio usage like the back of their hand. If there’s ever a true emergency, there should be no doubt that your personnel know what to do. When it comes to radio purchases, selecting and implementing a few radio options and enhancements, such as the ones I’ve discussed, can help responders do their job more effectively and safely in the field.
Facebook Poll Question: A firefighter’s radio can be a literal lifesaver. Given its significance on the fireground, what key feature(s) do you look for when purchasing/using a radio?
- 80%—Ease of use with a gloved hand
- 15%—Audio clarity
- 6%—Durability in high-heat conditions
Sidebar 2: Broadband Communications Defined
- Narrowbanding—This refers to the transition that all public safety organizations must make from using 25-kHz technology to using 12-kHz technology (12 is more narrow than 25). Narrowbanding applies to the public safety spectrum below 512 MHz. The deadline for the transition: Jan. 1, 2013. The purpose: Using less of the spectrum will allow additional channel capacity within the same spectrum.
- 700-MHz Band—This is a part of the overall radio spectrum that’s reserved for commercial wireless and public safety broadband and narrowband communications. It was freed up when we converted to digital televisions—remember the commercials telling you your old TV would stop working without a conversion box?
- 700-MHz Narrowband Spectrum—The segment of the 700-MHz band allocated for narrowband operations (voice/push-to talk and some narrowband data). This spectrum is licensed by the FCC to each state.
- 700-MHz Broadband Spectrum—The segment of the 700-MHz Band (10 MHz worth) available for public safety broadband communications. Broadband communications refers to the ability to transmit much more than voice—it can transmit streaming video and other kinds of data. But no one can actually use this part of the spectrum yet (except for a few special agencies that have a waiver), because the FCC is still deciding the rules and regulations. “
- D Block—This refers to another 10-MHz of spectrum—also within the 700-MHz Band. A major victory in 2012: Congress designated the D Block specifically for public safety use.
- LTE Network—Your current phone probably uses 3G technology. Think of LTE as 4G. That’s not entirely accurate, but for our purposes, it will do. The major commercial carriers—AT&T, Verizon, etc—are currently building LTE networks. As with all things in communications, LTE means increased capacity and speed to transmit data.
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