|Avcomm's Freedom wireless headset|
|Firecom's UHW-10 wireless headset|
Mifflinburg (Pa.) Fire Chief John Heiges was not aware that a wireless headset had been developed for apparatus intercom systems until he got to Denver last August for the Fire Rescue International trade show.
"And then," he said, "we stumbled onto Firecom's booth."
The company was unveiling its newest product - the first wireless headset for the fire service - and Heiges gave Firecom its first order while he was at the show.
Two months later Avcomm International shipped its first wireless headset, called Freedom. And this spring the David Clark Company expects to introduce its "wireless solution" for vehicle intercom systems.
Intercom systems for fire apparatus were adapted from aviation intercoms as a safety measure to protect hearing and enhance communications. They have taken hold in the fire service to the point where Pierce Manufacturing, which makes more fire apparatus than any other company in the United States, estimates 60 to 70 percent of the trucks leaving its factory have intercom systems. Additionally, the company said Pierce dealers, as well as fire departments, install intercom systems on some apparatus after it leaves the plant.
The National Fire Protection Association 1500 standard on occupational safety and health says "hearing protection shall be provided for and used by all members operating or riding on fire apparatus when subject to noise in excess of 90 dBA."
The move toward wireless headsets has been building for some time as wireless communications became common outside the fire service.
Bluetooth Ups The Ante
"We've been getting requests for this for years," said Barry Jackson, Firecom's product manager and southeast sales manager. "When Bluetooth came out, a wireless solution for your cellphone, that upped the ante with more and more people wanting their engineer to be wireless."
He said the response to Firecom's wireless headset has been overwhelming. A couple of months after the Denver show, he said, the number of orders exceeded production. "What's really surprised me," he said, "is how many departments want to go totally wireless in the cab. So now they don't have the hassle of the cord in their way while they're putting on their gear."
Most of the early orders, he said, came from departments that already had intercom systems and wanted to "cut the cord for the engineer."
Heiges, the Pennsylvania fire chief, had a different priority. He ordered three wireless headsets, two for his all-volunteer department's 70-foot tower ladder and one for its rescue apparatus, both of which had intercom systems.
He said his firefighters did not like the operator and platform intercom speaker boxes on the aerial because they had trouble hearing each other over the noise. The department tried plug-in headsets, he said, but the firefighters did not like the cords. They tried portable radios, but found there was so much traffic that they had trouble talking back and forth.
"I just think it's real important that they be able to hear everything that's going on on the fireground, but at the same time have very direct communications," Heiges said. "So when we saw the wireless headsets out at Denver, we thought we had stumbled onto something that might solve what we thought was a problem."
No Buttons To Push
Now when the Mifflinburg tower ladder responds, two positions are wireless and the other four have the wired headsets that were installed on the truck. The two wireless headsets are voice activated to talk on the intercom system and have push to talk buttons for the radio system.
When the firefighters with the wireless headsets are in their aerial positions outside the cab, he said, "they're talking back and forth like they're standing next to each other. No buttons to push."
One of the department's first three wireless headsets was purchased for the rescue apparatus operator so he could move around the truck, tending to the rescue tool system or the cascade system. "It keeps him from being wired fast to anything," the chief said, "and it gives him the ability to be on the mobile radio at all times instead of a portable."
The reaction from the department's members has been so overwhelmingly positive, he said, that the engineers are asking to go wireless. "It clears up the communications a lot," he said.
Wireless headsets, do have a couple of shortcomings, according to Jackson, the Firecom product manager, but both can be handled as "training issues." The headsets must be charged, and firefighters may forget they are wearing them.
"You arrive on scene," he said. "Everybody is pumped up, the crewmen jump out and they've still got their headsets on and they realize, 'Hey I've got to put my mask on here, I'm going into a fire.' What are they going to do with that headset? They're going to take it off and throw it back toward the truck."
Jackson expects the majority of departments that go wireless will have setups similar to Mifflinburg. "Most are probably going to be blended systems," he said. You'll probably have one wireless headset for the engineer and maybe another for the officer, but the crew positions will probably continue to be wired."
He said the Firecom wireless headset has a 90 to 100-foot range, 10 hours of talk time on a charge and costs $699. "That gets you a choice of an over-the-head style headset or an under-the-helmet style," he said. "It gets you the base unit, which is the transceiver that plugs into the back of the intercom, and a charger. We include a wall charger as part of the package. and it includes the nine-foot cable for charging it on the truck."
The system, he said, was three years in development and uses a frequency licensed by the Federal Communications Commission. "Some of the solutions we looked at were just too pricey for fire departments," he said.
Avcomm took a different approach to building its wireless system, using Bluetooth technology with enhancements, and the David Clark Company may come up with a third way when its product is introduced early this year.
David Hansen, who is David Clark's fire two-way medical product manager, was reluctant to talk in detail. He said years of research and development have been necessary to create a "wireless solution" that is rugged and reliable. "The new wireless product will offer functionality, reliability and ease-of-use and will integrate seamlessly with all new and existing David Clark intercom systems," he said.
Rick Edwards, a vice president and one of the owners of Avcomm, said Bluetooth by itself has distance limitations, but Avcomm's Freedom Wireless Headset has a 300 to 500-foot range. "We've combined Bluetooth with our own chip technology in our transmitters to break the distance envelope," he said. "And one of the unique aspects of Avcomm is we interface with any existing intercom system in the market."
He said his company's product is valuable "to various industrial sectors because of its simplicity, its dependability, its clarity and its flexibility on the ground or in the vehicle."
He described the number of orders for both new and existing apparatus as phenomenal. With apparatus already in service, he said, fire departments "can simply buy a replacement headset, a transmitter and a headset charger and then replace the existing wired headset."
The orders are split among three categories. The largest percentage are for pump operators, he said, then ladder trucks and after that, rescue apparatus and EMS.
The range of the Avcomm wireless headset is based on line-of-sight, so buildings or vehicles can cause interference. That is one reason the company makes transmission antennas for outside, as well as inside the cab.
"With an external antenna you get clear communications on a 360 degree radius even if there's metal in between," Edwards said. "If you go out of the wireless range, you hook up one side of our wireless headset to your handheld."
The other option when a signal is interrupted, he said, is to move back within range. "You'll start to get crackling in your headset," he said. "You can walk back in, and it automatically resyncs and within five seconds you would have your signal back."
Two other companies that make apparatus intercom systems -Sigtronics Corporation and Setcom Corporation - have no immediate plans for wireless headsets.
"We're just kind of sitting back and watching to see what happens," said Sigtronics President Mark Kelley. "The only advantage is that you lose a cord, but you have to deal with batteries inside the headset, you have to deal with keeping them charged all the time, there's going to be additional cost and because there's a lot more electronics in the headset, there is going to be reduced reliability."
Setcom Corporation has been making intercom systems for the fire service for more than 15 years and is a leader in communications equipment for motorcycle law enforcement officers. The company makes the Liberator wireless headset for motorcycles, but President Michael Boyd said he does not know when Setcom will produce one for fire apparatus. "It could be soon, it could take longer," he said. "Product development has its own timeline."
Because wireless development is expensive, he said one challenge is the tradeoff between convenience and cost. "On the police side there is a very clear and compelling benefit," he said. "On the fire side I think there is a benefit, but it's a question of how much people are going to pay for that benefit."
Boyd believes wired headsets will continue to be around for a long time because they are more reliable and in most cases less expensive than wireless.
When apparatus intercom systems were developed, the incentive was to protect firefighters from hearing loss. Boyd said most orders were for retrofits, "but the market has matured and more and more are being sold through the truck manufacturers."
The issue of hearing loss, he said, is more acute in professional departments than volunteer settings "where you don't run as many calls and the time that people spend on the apparatus every week is dramatically less."
He said he continues to be surprised when firefighters ask why they should buy an intercom system.
"The advantage of intercoms over earplugs is they not only protect your hearing, they allow you to communicate on the way to a fire scene so that when you show up you're not losing precious time trading information," he said. "I have yet to run across a fire department that uses earplugs."