Portable Radios Selection and User Guide in the Fire Service

Portable Radios Selection and User Guide in the Fire Service

26 Aug. 2016   Information

The success of a fire service radio system project hinges on the performance of the portable radio. If the portable radio has poor performance, the end user relates it to the performance of the radio system as a whole. All the firefighter knows is that when the PTT was pressed, the communications worked or did not work.
Manufacturers offer radios at different price points to meet market need. As with any other product, the options and performance levels increase with the cost. Usually there are three tiers of radios available. At the lowest level are nonruggedized radios meant for users who do not handle radios in a rough manner and do not operate in environmental extremes. The second level of radio is for the user who needs more reliability and performance features. HQT has good performance and can provide customized DMR Radios.The highest tier radios are focused on the public safety user. They offer the highest levels of performance and reliability and have the most options available. Radios with the most options are typically more complex and require appropriate training and reinforcement to maintain proficiency. At this level, the radios often are submersible and have intrinsically safe options. Submersible radios are a very worthwhile option for the fire service, considering the possibility of radios getting wet or exposed to steam.

Today’s radios are an integral part of firefighting and a key component of fireground safety. The form and fit of the radios for firefighting have not improved much over the past decade. Buttons and knobs have increased in size as compared to the radios of the 1980s and 1990s, but firefighters have the same difficulties operating radios while in PPE. Radio knobs are still difficult to manipulate with a gloved hand, even though it is required as a component of NFPA 1221 (2013 edition).
The radios of today can be programmed with hundreds of channels or talkgroups. The large number of channels/talkgroups has made “hard switches” that correspond with a channel/talkgroup impossible. To select channels on radios with added channel capabilities requires LCDs and “soft keys” to provide access. In firefighting, the LCDs are not readable in smoky environments, and the soft keys cannot be pressed with a gloved hand. When programming the radio, take care to make firefighting radio channels easily accessible.

Environmental Technical Standards
Radios are designed to operate in environmental ranges. The harsh environment of firefighting is hard on equipment and personnel. To provide reliable communications, it is common to purchase ruggedized communications equipment. The technical specifications and testing protocols used to determine if a device is rugged can be confusing. Manufacturers use several testing protocols to determine if the device is “Public Safety Grade.” Some of the more common standards encountered are Military Standards (MIL-STD) and International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) standards.

International Electrotechnical Commission Ingress Protection Codes
Ingress Protection (IP) codes are international standards that test for IP into an electrical enclosure. Manufacturers use this code to rate intrusion against solid objects from hands to dust and water in electrical enclosures. The rating consists of the letters “IP” followed by two digits. The standard is intended to provide an objective testing protocol to reduce subjective statements such as “waterproof.” The first digit represents the size of the object that is protected against, and the second digit represents the water protection. More detailed information on this standard can be found at www.iec.ch, International Electrotechnical Committee, IEC 60529.

Military Standards
In the 1970s and 1980s, radios were manufactured to various industry standards for ruggedness and technical stability. In the 1990s, radio manufacturers adopted MIL-STD 810 as a standard for reliability and ruggedness. MIL-STD 810 was developed by the military to provide an environmental test protocol that would prove qualified equipment would survive in the field. MIL-STD 810 is a test protocol written for the military environment, not the firefighting environment. The specification sheets often reference a letter designation behind the MIL-STD. The letter designation represents the revision level of the MIL-STD being tested to. The latest revision is MIL-STD 810 F. Earlier revisions of MIL-STD 810 were generic up to revision C. Subsequent revisions became more tailored to the actual environment the equipment would operate in. Manufacturers sometimes only perform specific test components of the MIL-STD. For instance, an equipment specification may read “MIL-STD 810 F for water, dust and shock resistance.” When we see MIL-STD 810, we assume that the equipment is ruggedized and will survive the firefighting environment. We need only look to the temperature specification to see that this is questionable. MIL-STD 810F actually has two temperature specifications depending on where the equipment is to be used.
The table shown is the high temperature table from MIL-STD 810F. A similar table is included in MIL-STD 810F for low temperatures. Most manufacturers test to the “Basic Hot” and “Basic Low” temperature levels. This temperature range is from approximately minus 30 C to 60 C (minus 22 F to 140 F). These temperature extremes do not replicate the environments that firefighters encounter. Radios that are available today are still manufactured to this specification.

How Many?
After defining the technical and operational requirements of the radio, the number of radios needed has to be determined. Departments have to identify who needs radios. A portable radio for each firefighter provides the highest level of safety. In addition to firefighters, radios for support and other fire department functions should be considered.

Additional guidance can be found in the following NFPA standards:
NFPA 1561
 Emergency Traffic:
To enable responders to be notified of an emergency condition or situation when they are assigned to an area designated as immediately dangerous to life and health (IDLH), at least one responder on each crew or company shall be equipped with a portable radio and each responder on the crew or company shall be equipped with either a portable radio or another means of electronic communication.
NFPA 1221
 Two-Way Portable Equipment:
What Type?
Since radios are tiered based on performance and ruggedness, there can be significant cost savings by buying high-tier radios for responders and the appropriate lower tiered radios for support staff.
High-tier: High-tier radios should be provided to each firefighter. This level of radio gives the highest level of performance and reliability that radio manufacturers can provide. Within each tier, there may be options that provide additional capabilities or functions. If using radios for EMS and fire functions, encryption may be required for operations with law enforcement agencies or to comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA) requirements.
Mid-tier: Mid-tier radios may be appropriate for users who do not enter into the firefighting environment. This type of radio would be a good choice for EMS functions. Again, encryption may be required to meet HIPAA requirements. 
Low-tier: Low-tier radios are an option for some support staff. These radios provide communications for users who are not in harsh environments and may not need all the functionality of the higher tier radios.

Portable Radio User Training Guide
Firefighters often lack the basic knowledge and training of their portable radios, systems, and the capabilities of each. Training is required to form a basic operating knowledge and awareness of their radios. The awareness should include regular training and familiarization with the radio. The IAFF Fire Ground Survival (FGS) program states that “no probationary firefighter should enter the field without having practiced requesting resources and calling a Mayday. Furthermore, fire departments must have an ongoing training program specifically focused on using the radio” (IAFF FGS). Radios are often the only way to communicate on the fireground, especially in the case of an injured or downed firefighter. The next paragraphs will provide a simple and basic understanding of radio operations. It is not a prescriptive answer for every situation nor will it go over every single type of radio. The goal is for users to understand how to care for their radio, how to wear their radio, radio discipline, and training.
When a firefighter arrives to the fire station or is checking his or her equipment prior to engaging in work, it usually involves placing his or her gear and equipment in a ready state. Depending on where you work or who you work for, the radio may not be a big part of this routine. If it is not a major part of the routine, then it should be. The radio provides the means to summon help for you or your fellow firefighter. A basic radio check-off would include proper inspection of the radio’s physical properties, such as knobs, switches and the antenna as well as the radio’s functionality. Users should also have some knowledge and understanding of battery/power supply life, rotation and maintenance. They should also be aware of the effect of temperature on the battery/power supply. Further questions about radios can be answered in this report, your department’s technical personnel, or the manufacturer.
Users and their behaviors have an impact on the effectiveness of fireground communications. Human factors, such as the way we speak and organization of reports, affect communications. Technical factors obviously have an impact on fireground communications. Like any other technology, users need to know the limitations of the technology and how to use the tool appropriately.
(Source: Abstracted from Voice Radio Communications Guide for the Fire Service (FEMA))
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