Firefighter Accountability Solutions: Radio Fuels Next Generation

By Mike Petersen, Director of ASTRO Subscriber Product Management, Motorola Solutions, Inc.; and Jerry Napolitano, Solutions Architect, Motorola Solutions, Inc.

Firefighter accountability always has been a priority on the fireground. Managing resources-personnel and equipment-in this extreme environment requires attention every moment to keep firefighters safe.

Historically, firefighters have created manual systems for accountability, such as simple ID tags similar to dog tags that firefighters drop in a bucket near the incident commander (IC). But, when portable two-way radios first appeared at the fire scene, accountability and communications dramatically changed. Radio meant personnel could relay information more quickly. Firefighters also could report their status directly to an IC. Speed and efficiency meant lives were saved, property was preserved, and firefighters were kept safe.

New Role for Communications

With this new communications tool, the challenge for firefighters and communications manufacturers was to work together to transform its functions and form so that it would become a vital part of standard firefighter gear, as important as personal protective equipment (PPE) and self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA). What followed were decades of work to achieve that goal.

Radios became more compact and could fit in a firefighter’s gloved hands without compromising the full functionality of all knobs including the emergency button. Batteries became lighter and more powerful, a real plus for firefighters concerned with equipment weight and performance. Manufacturers identified new materials that could best survive the extreme environments firefighters encounter.

These and other wireless technology breakthroughs transformed the two-way radio into the tool every firefighter called his or her lifeline. Finally, it was acceptable and preferable to assign a radio to every firefighter.

Effects of September 11

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, served as an exclamation point for a “sea change” in how firefighters had to prepare for the emergencies they might face. Incidents from terrorist attacks to natural disasters might impact not only massive high-rise urban structures but also huge surrounding geographic areas and the millions of people living in them.

The personnel necessary to respond to these incidents clearly would exceed the resources of any individual fire department. The solution-at least partly-was mutual-aid agreements. Yet, the problem with this was that there could be a lot of personnel unfamiliar with each other working an emergency scene. How could an IC effectively manage personnel and equipment on such a scale?

The Next Generation of Firefighter Accountability

The challenge for firefighters and communications manufacturers, like Motorola Solutions, was to create an entirely new approach to accountability. There were three basic questions:

1. How could portable radios and their capabilities be configured so that they specifically addressed the unique challenges firefighters face?

2. What new firefighter accountability functions could be incorporated into and alongside these radios with data transmitted over the same RF network?

3. How could all of these enhancements become part of a comprehensive portable firefighter accountability solution that would deliver the information any IC needs to make the best decisions quickly?

It was a tall order. Motorola began by immersing engineering and design staff in a firefighter’s day-to-day routine. They wore firefighters’ protective gear, participated in comprehensive department training sessions, talked with firefighters in their firehouses, held focus groups at major conferences, and attended intensive training sessions at institutes such as the Illinois Fire Service Institute (IFSI) in Champaign, Illinois.

The company gathered all the information and incorporated it into new generations of fire service portable radios. Each generation focused on making the radios more firefighter- and glove-friendly regardless of the environment. There was a particular effort to find new ways of using sight, sound, and touch features that would-almost redundantly-ensure that firefighters could send and receive information no matter what was going on around them.

The Motorola XTS family of two-way portable radios includes a number of ergonomic changes such as a large push-to-talk button and an angled volume knob to distinguish it from other controls. The family soon incorporated features ranging from verbal channel announcements to eliminate any confusion about the channel selected to a yellow-colored housing for increased visibility.

With the release of the APX two-way portable radio family in 2009, Motorola added even more features and controls. The radios feature 50 percent higher volume without distortion and sound is cleaner, crisper, and louder. A unique two-microphone configuration has resulted in enhanced voice quality because it no longer matters which side of the radio-front or back-a firefighter actually talks toward. The microphones smartly pick up the firefighter’s voice and dramatically reduce the impact of background noise.

A T-grip design provides a larger control top and larger displays and control knobs. This makes the radio easier for a firefighter to handle. A top and front display features “intelligent lighting” cues-green to indicate calls/transmissions, amber for emergency, and red for radio out-of-range.

In 2010, Motorola introduced the APX XE line of portable radios. Ergonomically, every detail of these radios was exaggerated. The top display is twice as large as previous models. The emergency button is especially large and positioned between the antenna and the channel knob. Firefighters easily can find it by touch even with a gloved hand. The speaker grill is designed to better channel water away from the speaker, whether the water comes from rain or accidental immersion. Firefighters can create specific audio profiles to compensate for specific environmental conditions they routinely encounter.

Then, in late 2011, Motorola introduced the APX XE remote speaker microphone (RSM). As with the APX XE portable itself, the RSM features exaggerated controls-prominent push-to-talk button, large emergency button, two microphones, and a large speaker with a grill for improved water runoff. It includes an emergency-activated strobe light visible at up to 10 feet even in dense smoke.

A Future-Ready Platform

Motorola was especially determined that the APX family be a “future-ready” platform to accommodate communications and emerging firefighter accountability solution technologies. The vision was to make the radio the communication hub at a fire scene. Cognitive accessories could be added and vital information from these systems relayed back to a central location. For example, physiological data can be transmitted today. Future possibilities could involve information that provides an IC better situational awareness.

To accomplish this, Motorola has looked to potential partners who specialize in these technologies. The company has been taking especially hard looks at physiological, indoor location, and incident management-credentialing, secure access, and identify verification-technologies.

The company currently is working with Zephyr Technology in Annapolis, Maryland, on a solution that monitors and wirelessly transmits data about a firefighter’s body functions including heart rate, breathing rate, and skin temperature.

Not only is this capability valuable at an incident scene, it also has proven useful in training. It can alert trainers to a firefighter’s physiological status so appropriate action can be taken during a training exercise. The monitor comes as a chest strap or integrated into a pullover shirt. It is available as a cognitive accessory to Motorola’s APX radio family.

Motorola is working with Maryland-based TRX Systems to develop an indoor location solution that works well in its RF environment. The system uses multiple sensor technologies to monitor user movement in virtually any direction, creating a map of an individual’s path.

A Complete Firefighter Accountability System

Ongoing enhancements to the portable radio and new accountability software are important. More critical is how these systems function seamlessly together as an integrated firefighter accountability solution. Motorola has tested its newest communications technologies in departments in cities around the country including Indianapolis, Indiana; Cincinnati, Ohio; Elgin, Illinois; and the Orland Park (IL) Fire Protection District.

In some of these tests, the firefighter radios reliably relayed vital information directly to an IC’s laptop. Every IC could see in real time all that was happening at the scene including the status of firefighters. As one firefighter noted, “The radio actually enabled incident commanders to ‘see’ everything.”

A modified version of this solution has been adopted by the Fire Department of New York (FDNY). The department requires all fire battalions in the city to use it. The solution uses Motorola XTS two-way radios to transmit the status of the firefighters on the scene. FDNY calls this customized system Electronic Firefighter Accountability System (EFAS). It is part of FDNY’s long-term strategic initiative to keep fire firefighters safe and accounted for.

The Longer-Term Future

Today’s two-way, radio-driven firefighter accountability solution has created a flexible infrastructure. Radios like Motorola’s APX family have the functional capacity and the form versatility to continually transform to meet ever-changing firefighter needs. Whatever those function and form needs are for the future, firefighters can be confident that they all will support the ultimate goal of the fire service-that “everyone goes home.”

MIKE PETERSEN is director of ASTRO Subscriber Product Management for Motorola Solutions, Inc. He works from the corporation’s Latin America and Caribbean Region headquarters in Plantation, Florida.

JERRY NAPOLITANO is a solutions architect for Motorola Solutions, Inc. He specializes in systems integration, network management, products development, and capital planning. He also is fire commissioner for the Town of Eastchester, New York.

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