Developments in Fireground Portable Radios

Portable radios often serve as lifelines that link firefighters with commanders either outside of a structure or at out-of-sight distances away from their location. Manufacturers have made great strides in portable radio design for the fireground, building in features that several years ago would have only been available on a wish list.

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By Alan M. Petrillo

Improvements in speaker microphones, background noise suppression, more robust housings, wider interoperability for better compatibility among radio types, longer battery life, better ergonomic design, special color schemes, and the addition of global positioning system (GPS) functionality have made portable radios much more effective tools for firefighters, their officers, and incident commanders.

Tactilely Unique

Dhiren Chauhan, fire and EMS marketing manager for Motorola Solutions Inc., says that Motorola’s APX radio is its P25 flagship line designed solely for first responders and government officials. “The portable radios are designed to be used with a gloved hand and have a tactility that is different from other radios,” Chauhan says. “The design allows for a better grip on the radio, which has a larger over-mold on the top housing that provides an extra layer of protection from bumps. The portable has a T-grip to make it non slip and rubber texture in certain areas also to provide a nonslip surface.”

Chauhan notes that Motorola’s APX portables use Gorilla glass in the display, which is a type of glass treated to withstand scratches and other abuse. “We also designed larger knobs on the APX, including a large emergency activation button three times the size of the typical emergency button,” he points out. “If the radio is carried in a firefighter’s turnout gear, all he has to do is touch his index finger to the top of the antenna, which leads directly to the emergency button, so there is no fumbling around for it.”

The APX also includes an accelerometer and a “firefighter-down” feature that can transmit a firefighter-down warning to a commander or fire dispatch if a firefighter remains motionless for a certain period of time. Software is used to define the time motionless, Chauhan says, as well as the firefighter’s attitude-vertical motionless, horizontal motionless, or both.

“We built the loudest and clearest microphone and speaker into the APX,” Chauhan notes, “with a one-watt digital speaker that’s twice as loud as others. We also use noise-canceling technology and adaptive beam forming in our two microphones, front and back. The microphone closest to the mouth picks up the voice and the other one acts as a noise-canceling microphone.”

Motorola also has integrated GPS into its portable APX radio as well as encryption technology. “It’s important to know where firefighters are on a fireground,” Chauhan says. “We transmit the GPS location through our radio network and can triangulate to locate a firefighter who might be lost, such as in a wildland fire event. Encryption is included in all our portables, and it can be turned on or off by choice of the fire department.”

Motorola’s APX 7000 and 7000XE portables carry all of the features noted, Chauhan points out, while the 6000 and 6000XE models have a different 500-milliamp speaker and are not dual-band radios.

Short-Range Preferences

Bob Shropshire, public safety market specialist for Icom America, says his company’s top P25 model is the 9011S that covers VHF, UHF, 700-, and 800-MHz frequencies. “This is the only six-watt-power radio on the market,” Shropshire points out, “and, it’s interoperable so that all different agencies can talk on it.”

Many fire departments choose to use Icom’s F50 model portable, Shropshire observes, “because it’s waterproof, is both a VHF and UHF transceiver, and has a built-in paging unit. A firefighter can get the page, pick up the radio, and talk back to the base.” He adds that a number of fire departments don’t need the features that come with P25 model portables. “They often want an excellent shorter-range radio with good connectivity locally,” he says. “They seldom want to talk to someone three counties away, which is a capability the P25 radios have.”

Shropshire notes the F50 portables can be encrypted if the fire department desires it, are dust-tight and waterproof, have five-tone paging and a vibration alert, and have an eight-minute recording function.

Firefighter Input

Mark Tesh, product manager for advanced development at Harris Corp., says his company’s XG-75P is its most popular radio purchased by firefighters, and it’s where the company has done most of its design optimization.

“We spent a lot of time with firefighters around the country from small volunteer departments to large city departments, listening to what works for them and what they need,” Tesh says. “We wanted to adapt our product so it was best suited for a firefighter’s unique needs.”

Tesh notes that the most difficult engineering task was improving the housing ruggedness on the XG-75P, which it accomplished so that “it’s the first portable radio in the industry to meet the IP68 requirements for submersion. It can take hours of deep-water immersion and continue operating.” The radio has a high-impact polycarbonate housing that can survive shock, drop, and vibration events, Tesh points out. “The XG-75P survived a test of being subjected to 500°F heat for 10 minutes and it still worked, which is a very tough test,” he says.

Glove-friendly control is another attribute to the XG-75P, Tesh maintains. “It’s easy to grasp and tell the knobs apart,” he says. “We have an assortment of glove-friendly knob kits in different shapes that are larger so they can easily be grasped by gloved fingers. Some have flat tops and others hemispherical tops so a firefighter can tell them apart by feel.”

Harris’s XG-75P portables can operate in P25 phase 1 and 2 trunking and P25 digital conventional and also have VHF and UHF bands. “We have a simple user interface with large, bold fonts on a liquid crystal display that is easy to read, even in bright sunlight,” Tesh says. “And, we make the portables with high-visibility housings, if that is required. Bright yellow and orange housings are popular right now, and our color-coding labels are requested a lot so departments can identify their radios with a specific apparatus.”

The XG-75P also has long-lasting lithium batteries, DES encryption, and active noise cancellation where software differentiates between a voice spoken close to the radio and noises farther away that are gathered by the radio’s multiple microphones. “Most firefighters use speaker mics, so we designed a new speaker mic for firefighters with a large push-to-talk button that’s easy to use with a gloved hand,” Tesh says. “The mic has twin-walled speakers that are custom-designed to withstand high temperatures.”

Analog Now, Digital Later

Matt Baker of Great Lakes Communications, a factory-authorized representative for Kenwood USA Corp., says Kenwood makes a variety of portable radios, from analog models to the P25 portables. “A lot of smaller fire departments are struggling for money and are still in the analog world but want to move forward into digital,” Baker says. “Our NX series radios work in an analog environment but can be flashed in the future to a P25 standard,” he notes. “The radios are defined by software, so it’s like putting a system update into your radio. Departments that can’t get federal grants to go to a P25 radio system usually buy the models that can be upgraded to a digital communications system in the future.”

Rick Gecsi, also a factory representative at Great Lakes Communications, says Kenwood builds its portable radios for public safety agencies to military specifications. “They have high-temperature protection, prevent dust and vibration intrusion, and meet the military specification for immersion,” Gecsi points out. “And, Kenwood radios also come in multicolor cases-international orange, yellow, or black.”

Baker notes that technology will continue to make inroads in portable radios in the future. “Bluetooth connectivity and digital signal processing (DSP) are being introduced right now for portable radios,” Baker says. “In the future, you’ll see multiprotocol technology and the ability to program equipment remotely over the air being developed for portables. It’s all part of the evolution of communications equipment.”

ALAN M. PETRILLO is a Tucson, Arizona-based journalist and is 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.

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