Improving Communication in a Large Department: The Philadelphia Experience

(1) Although the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department currently makes headset use optional, it expects to make it mandatory eventually.
(1) Although the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department currently makes headset use optional, it expects to make it mandatory eventually. (Photos courtesy of Firecom.)
(2) Firecom performed some custom engineering to provide continuing radio access through headsets while drivers are at the pump panel.
(2) Firecom performed some custom engineering to provide continuing radio access through headsets while drivers are at the pump panel.

Chris Nightwine

When Joshua McGuoirk, captain with the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department, took on the challenge of deploying hearing protection communication headsets and intercoms across every piece of the department’s fleet, he knew that completing the job would require the finesse of a quarterback inside the two-minute warning combined with the drive of a fullback going for the goal line.

In 2010, the city decided that it needed to improve dispatch communications and crew planning during responses while also mitigating noise for the well-being of firefighters. Noise levels on fire apparatus range up to 116 dBA,1 well in excess of the 85-dBA threshold at which the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requires employers to implement a hearing conservation program.2 Communication headsets have proven to be a suitable practice for resolving the multiple issues of high-noise environments. Headsets fit over the ear for hearing protection and incorporate a boom microphone and ear speakers to allow voice transmission and reception. Many systems are available in both wired and wireless configurations, and some also support push-to-talk communication over two-way radios.

After a thorough evaluation, the Philadelphia (PA) Fire Department chose to purchase communication headsets and intercoms from Firecom of Portland, OR. Supported by a $750,000 grant, the department opted to deploy wired headsets because it had a tight budget with which to install systems on its entire fleet of nearly 200 engines, trucks, aerials, medic units, and first-line reserve equipment.

Installation Planning

Given that Philadelphia has the fifth largest fire department in the nation, the logistics of system installation and training for such a large and varied fleet of equipment were daunting tasks. According to McGuoirk, who commands the department’s hazmat unit, the process involved four competing goals, in order of importance:

1. Ensuring the final installation specifications met with approval from numerous stakeholders both inside and outside the department.
2. Minimizing equipment downtime and keeping a full complement of equipment ready at all times.
3. Installing the systems as quickly as possible.
4. Ensuring that the installation contractors were kept busy and productive at all times.

Even with a three-bay maintenance facility and careful planning, the initial rollout took more than six months to complete. The department purchased the Firecom systems through Witmer Public Safety Group, of Coatesville, Pennsylvania, with installation handled through RSI-Fire, Inc., of Camp Hill, Pennsylvania. Warranty and maintenance coverage continues to be the responsibility of Firecom and Witmer Public Safety Group and is subcontracted to RSI-Fire.

Because system configuration and installation vary greatly from vehicle to vehicle, McGuoirk notes that taking the time to gain early buy-in from department stakeholders was critical to achieving deployment efficiency. To get that buy-in, he started with a sample of vehicles from the department fleet and developed installation plans unique to each type of vehicle based on input received from the fleet management division and other concerned parties. Stakeholders suggested, reviewed, and approved each installation plan, which then became the standard operating procedure for all future installations on each equipment type. Having equipment-specific installation standards in place eliminated the need for multiple reviews of each installation, reduced the number of special requests, and allowed the entire process to proceed efficiently. “You tell us how you want this done,” McGuoirk told stakeholders. “But once you’ve made your decision, that’s the way it’s going to be.”

Installation Process

With installation plans in hand and the installation task contracted to two full-time installers from RSI-Fire, the process began. The department reserved a three-bay “quick turn” maintenance facility at its department’s fire training academy for the project. Pilot installations were performed on every type of equipment, with process and results approved by all stakeholders from the city communications department to the actual installers. After finalizing the installation plans, each company brought in its frontline equipment to be swapped for reserve equipment during installation. This process kept companies in service and the installers 100 percent busy, ensured a constant flow of equipment through installation, and minimized the overall time to project completion. With all frontline equipment finished, installations proceeded on reserve equipment in situ as budget permitted.


McGuoirk notes that training is essential. “Frontline personnel aren’t particularly concerned with ‘why’ equipment works,” he says. “They’re more concerned with everyday issues such as how to use it, how to clean it, how to maintain it, and how to troubleshoot operational issues.” Using information provided by Firecom and other sources, McGuoirk developed a customized training supplement to complement the department’s library of manuals. The supplement is 10 pages long and covers the basic information each firefighter needs to know about hearing protection and how to use the headsets.

According to McGuoirk, the majority of firefighters, especially those with more than 15 years of experience, were receptive to the new system. However, some newer members of the department expressed concern that the headsets might prevent them from hearing sounds in the immediate environment, such as traffic. McGuoirk attributes this difference to the fact that many of the more senior firefighters had already experienced problems related to high-noise environments and thus welcomed the use of a system that provides both hearing protection and better communication.

These concerns were addressed by providing equipment drivers with slotted-dome headsets, which increase situational awareness. Firecom also performed some custom engineering to provide continuing radio access through headsets while drivers are at the pump panel. Although the department currently makes headset use optional, it expects to make use mandatory within the next several months.

McGuoirk also notes that companies with tiller apparatus embraced the new systems faster than engine companies, largely because of better communication between the cab and the tiller operator during turns and on-street parking. “I am the captain of a ladder company,” McGuoirk says, “and I find my driver and tiller operator talking back and forth on what turns they can and cannot make. Previously, our drivers and tiller persons had to rely on a buzzer system that warned them to stop, go, or back up; there was no verbal communication.”

Moving Forward

Fire departments contemplating adopting communication headsets should carefully consider the following factors.

• Assess your needs. Although hearing protection is an obvious benefit of headsets, clear communication is equally important. Before purchasing, physically try the headsets to ensure they are comfortable and easy to use and offer clear sound. Headsets should provide at least 24 dB of noise reduction and excellent audio quality. Although wired systems are usually less expensive than wireless systems, installing wireless systems is much easier, and they provide significant additional benefits in terms of mobility, convenience, and safety. If you are considering a wireless installation, look for systems that provide at least 1,500 feet of range. DECT-based systems provide greater range and are less subject to radio frequency interference than Bluetooth®.

• Obtain early buy-in from stakeholders. In large departments, stakeholders from maintenance, operations, the front line, and administration may have different interests and expectations. Involve all stakeholders early in the decision-making process, and obtain their buy-in on everything from requirements to deployment.

• Choose your vendor carefully. Headset systems differ in proven reliability and durability. Make sure the system is designed for fireground use, and ask about warranty, repair, and replacement policies. Try out the manufacturer’s technical support prior to making a decision. Extended service may make sense if you don’t have in-house maintenance.

• Plan logistics carefully. Although most communication systems can be installed in a few hours, installation will be time-consuming with large fleets. Having an agreed-on installation plan for each type of vehicle will eliminate the need for redundant approvals and reduce requests for custom installations. Allow sufficient lead time, and make sure that backup equipment is available to cover any gaps that occur during installation.

• Be prepared for differences of opinion. Not all frontline personnel will be equally accepting of new technology. Senior firefighters, who may already be experiencing difficulties from high-noise environments, may be more receptive to communication headsets than newer members of the department who have yet to experience why hearing protection is essential. Be prepared to educate why hearing protection is important.

Whether you are considering wired or wireless communication systems, McGuoirk offers one last bit of practical advice. “Look for a system that works as it’s designed, a system that does the job,” he says. “In day-to-day fire operations, clear communication is paramount.”


1. “Epidemiologic notes and reports: Noise-induced hearing loss in fire fighters-New York” MMWR 1983; 32: 57-8.
2. 29 CFR 1910.95.

CHRIS NIGHTWINE is the northeast regional manager at Firecom. He has worked in the fire industry for more than ten years, focused on the areas of firefighter safety, emergency egress, search and rescue, communications, and hearing protection.

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