Equipment, Petrillo

Wireless Communications Making Great Strides in Fire Service

Issue 10 and Volume 21.

By Alan M. Petrillo

Technological advances have pushed wireless communications faster and farther than many have anticipated, and use has been more deeply integrated into the fire service.

Wireless headsets, wireless hotspots on apparatus, and wirelessly controlled equipment are some of the ways wireless has made a big footprint with fire departments.

Wireless Headsets

Bob Daigle, product manager for airline, fire and marine systems, and wireless for David Clark Co., says that most fire service customers like the idea of wireless communications for drivers, officers, and aerial operators. “We launched our wireless products about five years ago and see a trend upward in fire departments moving toward more wireless communication,” he says.

David Clark Co. offers a wireless gateway with two antennae that can be installed anywhere on a vehicle, along with two belt stations-the U9910-BSW, which transmits and receives all system audio to and from the gateway and the user’s headset, and the U9913 belt station, an intercom-only model. Up to four belt stations can be connected to one gateway.

“We use the Digital Enhanced Cordless Technology (DECT) protocol for wireless because we have found it to be the most reliable for this type of application,” Daigle points out, “especially over Bluetooth, because it is less susceptible to drop out.” David Clark Co. makes a number of wireless headsets to mate with the gateway, including a behind-the-head style that simplifies use when the user is wearing a fire helmet.

1 A pump operator wears a David Clark Co. wireless behind-the-head style headset that simplifies use when wearing a helmet. (Photo courtesy of David Clark Co
1 A pump operator wears a David Clark Co. wireless behind-the-head style headset that simplifies use when wearing a helmet. (Photo courtesy of David Clark Co.)

With David Clark Co.’s new digital systems, Daigle says, “you can program individual interface requests, assign frequencies to certain users, and integrate cell phones and tablets. The power button on the digital unit toggles through four selections that include intercom, auxiliary sound sources, and assigning different radios. It’s very versatile, so the fire department can craft the system to its particular needs.”

Jim Roberts, president of Setcom Corp., says his company’s move into wireless technology five years ago “was well received, and since then we have made four iterations on the product to continue to increase the quality of the sound the user hears and transmits.” He notes that version four of the Liberator Wireless Headset “has added features that make sense and don’t contribute to user confusion.”

The Liberator Wireless Headset has a motion sensor in the headset that turns the unit off when it is not in motion. When the user picks up the headset again or begins to move, the unit automatically turns on. “It also has a cell phone feature,” Roberts notes, “and can communicate over a mobile radio, a truck intercom system, or a handheld portable radio. It uses a Bluetooth module for its primary communications link.”

2 A firefighter for Central Pierce (WA) Fire and Rescue on an aerial ladder communicates wirelessly through a Setcom wireless headset and boom microphone. (Photo courtesy of Setcom
2 A firefighter for Central Pierce (WA) Fire and Rescue on an aerial ladder communicates wirelessly through a Setcom wireless headset and boom microphone. (Photo courtesy of Setcom.)

Roberts says Setcom has added “a lot of digital sound processing” that increases the clarity of receiving and transmitting radio traffic as well as upgrades the modules for greater range. “Our standard is line of sight, which is about 1,200 feet, but in a typical fireground scenario with obstacles and other apparatus around, it’s about 300 feet,” he adds.

Setcom also makes a Twin Talk wireless system, which comprises two headsets that talk to each other but also can be hooked into cell phones and portable radios. “It’s really great for two-person truck systems like wildland trucks,” Roberts observes. Setcom also makes the 900SP (single-person) wireless system aimed at incident commanders (ICs), battalion chiefs, and other chief officers.

Handheld and Mobile Radios

Dave Alonzi, business development manager for HARRIS Corp., says that his company “supports wireless technology from the tip of the antenna to the earphone in the firefighter’s ear.” The wireless technology is built into the company’s P25 radios systems, in both trunked and analog versions, he says. “We have Bluetooth on our radios, long term evolution (LTE, the latest wireless data communications standard), and WiFi capability on some of them as well.”

The XL200 is the newest HARRIS P25 radio that can operate on VHF, UHF, 700 and 800 megahertz, analog, digital, the HARRIS communications system, the HARRIS OpenSky system, WiFi, LTE, and Bluetooth.

The Bluetooth unit has a small element that plugs into an earpiece, throat microphone, or boom microphone under a self-contained breathing apparatus mask, Alonzi points out. “It communicates with the Bluetooth radio in the firefighter’s pocket or on his person, so you don’t need a big microphone.”

3 HARRIS Corp. makes a Bluetooth speaker that communicates with its P25 Bluetooth-enabled radios to give louder audio in noisy environments. (Photo courtesy of HARRIS Corp.)
3 HARRIS Corp. makes a Bluetooth speaker that communicates with its P25 Bluetooth-enabled radios to give louder audio in noisy environments. (Photo courtesy of HARRIS Corp.)

HARRIS also makes the Fire Speaker Mic, a waterproof amplified microphone with high-temperature survivability. “It has large push-to-talk buttons that you have to push together to make it transmit,” Alonzi says, “has a man-down feature that sends out an emergency signal, and later this year will be able to transmit live video.”

Mark Krizik, head of systems architecture and design for Motorola Solutions Inc., says that a wireless feature has been added to Motorola’s APX accountability solution for trunked and conventional radio systems. “Accountability on the fireground is always a challenge in the fire service,” Krizik says. “There are three main pieces to the system: adding the personnel accountability option in an APX radio, running software on an IC’s laptop, and the server running software on the back end of the trunking system.”

Krizik says that as firefighters arrive on a scene, they turn to a designated channel or talk group for the incident, and the radio sends an identification signal into the system. The IC’s laptop shows a graphical format of all the radios identified, he notes, “and the IC knows when they are talking, can see if they turned to a different talk group, if the radio is turned off, or if they pushed the emergency button.”

4 The Motorola Solutions APX 8500 mobile radio supports wireless transmissions without interrupting voice communications. (Photo courtesy of Motorola Solutions Inc
4 The Motorola Solutions APX 8500 mobile radio supports wireless transmissions without interrupting voice communications. (Photo courtesy of Motorola Solutions Inc.)

He continues, “The IC can wirelessly send any of 16 different tactical alerts to those radios; for example, a roll call, a withdraw from the building alert, status updates, or a change from offensive to defensive mode. He doesn’t have to tie up the voice channel because it’s all done in the wireless data package.” In addition, Krizik says the wireless data package can be used as an incident management tool through use of drop-down menus for various types of assignments on the fireground.

Joe Spero, technical product support manager for Motorola Solutions, says the company’s new APX 8500 mobile radio supports wireless transmissions without interrupting voice communications. “It’s tied into a mobile data modem that creates a vehicle ecosystem so it has the ability to instantly offload data, transmit GPS coordinates or other information, send text messages, serve as a 3G or 4G hotspot, or offload applications-all without interrupting voice,” Spero says. “It’s interoperational across all bands and modes, analog, digital, secure and clear modes, and includes conventional and trunking systems.”

In addition, the new radio can tie into a Bluetooth gateway on a mobile microphone, Spero notes. “An IC, pump operator, or aerial operator can have a wireless mic that allows him to operate within 300 feet of the vehicle,” he says. “There are quite a few cases on a fire scene where wireless can be useful in a positive way.”

5 Pryme makes adapters and modules that add wireless capabilities to mobile and handheld radios, such as those being used by these military firefighters. (Photo courtesy of Pryme
5 Pryme makes adapters and modules that add wireless capabilities to mobile and handheld radios, such as those being used by these military firefighters. (Photo courtesy of Pryme.)

Dave George, president of Pryme, says his company makes adapters and modules that add wireless capabilities to mobile and handheld radios. “There’s a convergence where communications are moving toward wireless applications,” George says. “We focus on Bluetooth, and many existing radios need an adapter to make them work wirelessly, so we make about 40 different adapters to plug into those radios. If a radio already has Bluetooth in it, there still is a need for wireless headset devices.”

Pryme makes dual earmuffs with Bluetooth wireless capability that can operate up to 30 feet away from a vehicle, George notes. “We also make dual earmuffs with both two-way radio and cell phone capability because some departments are putting LTE technology inside their two-way radios, which adds the functionality of a smartphone.”

Krizik points out that wireless technology is “definitely taking a bigger role in radio systems. It frees up voice channels for critical communications and handles information behind the scenes but has the power of a radio system.”

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist, the author of three novels and five nonfiction books, and a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board. He served 22 years with the Verdoy (NY) Fire Department, including in the position of chief